Valerie Jarrett had just run through what would happen at today's summit on bullying when I asked her a rather blunt question. With all that's going on -- fights over budget cuts, the encroaching debt ceiling, the economy, job creation, not to mention the wave of protests across the Middle East and the bloody intransigence of Moammar Gaddafi -- why is President Obama focused on this today?
"What could be more important than our children?" Jarrett, senior adviser to the president, asked during an interview in her West Wing office Wednesday
Thursday. "There is a perception that bullying is a rite of passage. And it's not....It's just not acceptable."
Pointing out that education is a key component of the "Winning the Future" strategy that Obama presented at the State of the Union, Jarrett said: "What the children will tell you is that many of them are so paralyzed by fear that that's all they think about in school. We want to free them from that, because every child should be able to go to school and feel that they are in a safe and secure environment. And so, as the president focuses on what are the impediments to really getting the absolute best out of our children and having them grow up to be the inventors and the extraordinary Americans of tomorrow, making them safe in school is a big part of that."
Of course, she's right. And I applaud the president and the first lady for continuing to shine a light on this problem.
Last fall, we recoiled at the litany of gay teens and young adults who took their lives rather than suffer one more day at the hands of bullies. And don't think that students who are gay or perceived to be gay are the only victims. Young girls, those with disabilities, kids of different ethnic origins or nationalities -- all are just a few of the targets. Most recently, we recoiled at the video of Nadin Khoury, whose pleas for help went unheeded as he was beaten by a group of fellow students. His "offense"? His mother is African.
Today's summit in the East Room of the White House is meant to give those students, teachers, administrators and the community at large the tools they need to foster the safe and secure learning environment Jarrett spoke of.
To that end there will be announcements of three actions taken by the administration that have gotten little to no notice. Last October, Education Secretary Arne Duncan sent a "Dear Colleague" letter to schools, colleges and universities to clarify when student bullying might violate federal education anti-discrimination laws that protect students from harassment based on race, national origin, sex, gender or disability. Duncan followed that up in December with a letter to governors, chief state school officers and state education boards outlining anti-bullying state laws and best practices around the country. In addition, there will be a new technical assistance center housed within the Department of Education that's dedicated to bullying prevention.
Also recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a study to compile useful data on "Victimization, Perpetration, and Bystander Experiences." With real data there will be a more accurate picture of what's working and what's not so that scarce resources can be allocated to the most effective programs.
The importance of these actions will be made plain in the faces and stories of those who attend the morning panel and the afternoon breakout sessions. Among them: Kirk Smalley of Oklahoma, whose son, Ty Field, took his own life at the tender age of 11; Caleb Laieski, 16, of Arizona, who has written to all the schools in his state demanding that they institute anti-bullying policies after his own negative experiences; and Sirdeaner Walker, whose son, Carl Walker-Hoover, committed suicide when he was 11 years old after enduring constant bullying in school.
Walker has become a national anti-bullying advocate because of her son's death. But the administration hopes its high-profile efforts will help all of us change our attitudes toward bullying and make us advocates in some form. "Coming up with strategies that help us solve the problem...is a collective obligation, responsibility," Jarrett said. "The purpose here is to engage people in that conversation and to give it the spotlight of the White House so that perhaps people who've been ignoring this issue or weren't aware of it -- we can capture their attention.... Everybody in the community has a role to play. Not just parents and students.
"We all know what the problem is," Jarrett said at the end of the interview. "Well, now we need solutions."