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Second Annual Federal Youth Bullying Prevention Summit

September 21, 2011
Washington, DC

Thank you, Pam. It’s my pleasure to welcome all of you to this second annual summit.

I want to begin by acknowledging our partners across the federal government. We came together for the first of these summits last August because we knew that no one agency could tackle this problem on its own. And a year later, I’m glad to report that, while a lot of work remains to be done, the federal response to bullying has never been as well organized or coordinated as it is today.

I also want to acknowledge all the other partners who are here today –state and local officials, educators, non-profit and corporate leaders, parents, and youth activists. Here in Washington, we can gather data. We can share best practices. We can provide a limited amount of resources. But ultimately, you’re the ones on the front lines. You’re the ones taking on bullying one state, one community, one classroom, one child at a time. So I want to thank all of you for your leadership.

In many ways, this is a pivotal moment for our anti-bullying efforts. In the last year, bullying has seized our nation’s attention. After a string of suicides last fall by LGBT youth who had been bullied, Americans across the country grieved. When President Obama and I joined leaders from across government, sports teams, celebrities, and thousands of others in recording video messages that urged bullied youth not to give up hope, they were watched by tens of millions of people.

Meanwhile, spurred by these incidents and others, cities and states have taken aggressive action against bullying. In the last month alone, the Los Angeles Unified School District has adopted a broad anti-bullying resolution that calls on staff to intervene when they witness harassment or teasing. And New Jersey has passed the toughest state anti-bullying legislation in the country, including a new hotline that students can call to report bullying.

Outside of government, organizations from the PTA to the Cartoon Network are launching their own anti-bullying campaigns. And our department has received a record number of requests from community leaders who want to know what anti-bullying resources are available to them.

Perhaps the most promising sign that we are turning the tide on bullying are the youth leaders who are coming forward. Earlier this year, I got the chance to meet one of those leaders, Caleb Laieski. Caleb is from Arizona and grew up being bullied because he is gay. He was taunted, called names, and beaten up. During his freshman year in high school, an older boy threatened to stab him and almost hit him with a car.

What makes Caleb’s story so special is what he did next. First, Caleb worked with the school district to change its policies around bullying and harassment by including clear protections for LGBT students in the student handbook. Then he sent a letter to every school district in Arizona asking them to do the same thing. Since then, he’s gone to his state legislature in support of a bill to stop bullying of all kinds in Arizona schools, and come to Washington to argue for federal legislation.

Later today, you’ll see a video highlighting other young people from across the country who are stepping up to become anti-bullying leaders in their own communities. And yet we know that for every community or school that is taking a stand against bullying, there is another in which bullying is still the norm.

Today, one out of three middle and high school students reports being bullied. And as youth spend more of their time on Facebook, Myspace, email, and text messages, there are more opportunities to bully each other in front of a large audience, while hiding it from teachers and parents.

We also know that far too many adults still regard bullying as a rite of passage. Because they grew up around bullying, they see it as a natural part of childhood. Some even still cling to the belief that bullying toughens kids up and helps build character.

In fact, we know the opposite is true. Bullying is physical and emotional abuse. Students who are bullied are more likely to struggle in school and skip class. They’re more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. They’re more likely to be depressed and are at higher risk of suicide.

For youth, being bullied means the constant terror of worrying about when you’re going to be picked on next, combined with the terrible loneliness that can come from being ostracized by your peers.

No child in America should have to live with this fear. No child should go to class on an empty stomach because they’re afraid to eat in the cafeteria. No child should have their academic progress stunted because they’re afraid to talk in class. No child should feel so hopeless they decide to take their own life.

To achieve these goals, we need to build on the momentum of the last year. And that means getting entire communities involved in addressing bullying.

We know that most bullying is witnessed by other youth, and that harassment often ends quickly when a peer intervenes. So we need to do a better job educating youth about the dangers of bullying and the important role they can play in stopping it. That’s why our department has developed new youth leader toolkits that are available for anyone to download on our website, stopbullying.gov.

But ultimately, the responsibility rests with adults. No child is born a bully. They learn the behavior from adults. And every time an adult witnesses bullying and ignores it or responds in a way that makes it seems like it’s not a big deal, it sends a message to other youth that bullying is okay. Most adults would never walk by one twelve-year-old physically hurting another without doing something. We should feel the same obligation to intervene stop other forms of bullying that are just as damaging.

The good news is that we already have proven bullying prevention strategies. If you visit stopbullying.gov, you’ll also find ready-made materials for parents, educators, law enforcement, and community leaders that tell you which approaches are effective and which are not. No matter what role you play in your community, you can make a difference and stopbullying.gov can show you how.

Working with the Department of Education, we’ve already sent educational materials to every school and library in the country. And we’ve also begun reaching out to underserved communities like Tribal reservations. But we need to work together to continue this outreach until every city hall, community center, and parent has access to this information.

When community members are motivated to take on bullying and have the tools to help them do it, we will start replacing the old norm of bullying with a new norm of, standing up to bullying, and ultimately, creating communities of respect and tolerance. That work is underway around the country, but we have a long way to go.

Today’s summit is an opportunity to learn from each other, to build new partnerships, and to recommit ourselves to ending harassment and abuse in our classrooms, hallways, playgrounds, and cyberspace. Bullying has been around for a long time, and it’s not going away overnight. But if we build on the progress of the last year, we can make America a safer and healthier place for our children to grow up, and there’s nothing more important than that.

Thank you.