By Valerie Jarrett
Recently, I watched the movie Bully with my mom. We were both deeply moved by the film and the stories it tells of students, families, and communities impacted by bullying.
Earlier today, we screened BULLY at the White House. We were joined by bullying prevention advocates from a range of communities – LGBT, AAPI, faith, disability, and others – as well as educational partners and key Obama Administration staff who work on these issues every day, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Before the film, a panel of nationally recognized experts on bullying prevention spoke from their perspectives about challenges and opportunities, and after the film, we heard from Lee Hirsch, the director and filmmaker, and several of the students and families who were directly impacted by bullying and intolerance and whose stories were featured in the film.
This film is a powerful call to action: We must do everything we can to work toward the day when no young person or family suffers the pain, agony, and loss caused by bulling in our schools and communities.
In the last few years, President Obama and his Administration have taken significant steps towards this goal.
In March of 2010, we held the first-ever White House Conference on Bullying Prevention, attended by both the President and First Lady. The conference brought together students, teachers, advocates, the private sector, and policymakers, to discuss ways to make our schools safer. President Obama explained it this way: “If there’s one goal of this conference, it’s to dispel the myth that bullying is just a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up. It’s not.”
The President recorded a video for the It Gets Better Project, and so did the Vice President, Cabinet Secretaries, and members of the White House Staff.
The Department of Education has issued guidance to schools, colleges, and universities, making it clear that existing civil rights laws apply to bullying. Schools have not just a moral responsibility, but a legal responsibility, to protect our young people from harassment. They have also worked with states to help them in their own anti-bullying efforts, and recently released a report that documents key components of anti-bullying laws across all 50 states. And the Department of Education has issued guidance to Governors and state school officials, in order to help them incorporate the best practices for protecting students.
We recently re-launched StopBullying.gov, a website that contains detailed descriptions of the work we’re doing on bullying, along with resources for young people, parents, and educators.
We’ve partnered with businesses, foundations, non-profits, and universities that are coming up with new, creative ways to make our schools safe.
And recently, the Departments of Education and Justice reached a landmark settlement in the Anoka-Hennepin School District after an extensive investigation into bullying and harassment against students who are or are perceived to be LGBT.
These Administrative actions have been critically important – and effective – and we will continue to work across the entire Federal government to address and prevent bullying.
We also hope that Congress will take action to ensure that all students are safe and healthy and can learn in environments free from discrimination, bullying, and harassment by passing the Student Non-Discrimination Act (SNDA) and the Safe Schools Improvement Act (SSIA). These pieces of legislation are critically important to addressing bullying in our schools and safeguarding our most vulnerable students. The Student Non-Discrimination Act, sponsored by Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, and Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado, would prohibit discrimination in public schools against any student on the basis of actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender identity.
And the Safe Schools Improvement Act, sponsored by Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania and Rep. Linda Sanchez of California, would require school districts to adopt codes of conduct specifically prohibiting bullying and harassment, including on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity, and religion. I would also like to thank Illinois Rep. Danny Davis for his advocacy on this issue. All of our students have the same right to go to school in an environment free of discrimination and harassment, and that’s why the President supports these two important pieces of legislation and wants to work with Congress as they move forward in the process.
Every day, we are striving to do our part to make progress. And I believe that day by day, step by step, we will change not just our laws and policies, but behavior, so that every young person is able to thrive in our schools and communities, without worrying about being bullied.
Valerie Jarrett is Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama.