Deborah Temkin’s life course was set in middle school, when a falling out over the school newspaper turned a fast friend into an archenemy who organized most of her classmates against her.
Overnight, Temkin went from a new girl trying to make friends at her Tucson school to an easy target for bullying. She remembers being spat on from school bus windows and shoved into a water fountain so hard that she chipped her tooth.
“To this day, I cannot eat in a cafeteria by myself,” she said.
But she managed to turn her painful adolescent memories into a successful career leading the federal government’s campaign against bullying. At 26, she coordinates a federal effort that spans nine departments and 32 offices.
Her rapid success has put her in the running for a Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal for outstanding public service.
She is one of 33 finalists, nine of whom will be awarded medals by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service in the fall.
In the years since she was teased and taunted, she has dedicated herself to trying to understand the roots of bullying and to help schools find effective strategies to stop it.
Looking back, she said, “I don’t blame the other kids. I blame the school a lot more. . . . The school let it happen, and it just grew in magnitude.”
Despite repeated complaints from Temkin and her parents, the administrators’ interventions led only to more retaliation and isolation, she recalled.
In ninth grade, her parents enrolled her in a private school, where she got a fresh start. She went on to Vassar College and then graduate school at Pennsylvania State University, where she studied education policy and human development and focused her research on bullying.
Her career break came at an international bullying-prevention conference in Pittsburgh, where she heard Kevin Jennings, then assistant deputy secretary for the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools in the Education Department, speak about elevating the role of social and emotional health and school climate in education reform.
Jennings, a civil rights and gay rights activist, had been hired to step up the government’s efforts in combating bullying. But he had little time to devote to the issue in a job that included responding to school shootings, drug and alcohol abuse, and an H1N1 flu outbreak.
So he was intrigued when Temkin introduced herself after his speech that day, told him about her research and said, “Let me help you achieve your goals.”
A few months later, Temkin started working for the Education Department as an unpaid intern. She moved to Washington in May 2010 and was put in charge of organizing the first federal bullying-prevention summit that August, which brought together 150 people, mostly government and nonprofit-group leaders, to organize a response. The third annual summit was held this week in Washington.
By September 2010, instead of returning to graduate school, she moved into a staff position as the first-ever federal employee devoted to bullying prevention.
The work was fast-paced and high-profile from the start, driven by a string of youth suicides that fall that brought new national attention and urgency to the issue. By November, Temkin was planning a March 2011 White House conference on bullying prevention, where the president and first lady spoke out against the traditional kids-will-be-kids view of potentially harmful behavior.
Politicians around the country rushed to respond. State legislatures passed more than 30 anti-bullying laws in 2010 and 2011. Temkin played a key role in providing states guidance on promising policies.
She also oversaw the creation of the stopbullying.gov Web site to give educators tools for preventing and responding to bullying, including training for bus drivers, lists of emergency resources and links to relevant laws.
Jennings said that recent years have brought a sea change in the way the nation regards bullying, thanks in no small part to Temkin, who has helped coordinate a resounding response at the highest levels of government.
“Bullying has become as socially unacceptable as racist name-calling,” he said.
Temkin is still hard at work, analyzing new state laws to understand their effect and helping to create a uniform definition of bullying that includes physical harm as well as emotional and psychological distress.
She also meets with community groups and helps outside anti-bullying organizations, including Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation.
Around the edges she managed to finish her doctorate from Penn State.
More than two years into her job, she’s more comfortable in her pinstripe suits and pumps, but she still marvels that she was able to land a dream job in which she could have influence over a social problem about which she cares deeply.
“I still pinch myself every time someone from the White House calls,” she said.
Through myspace.com, she once looked up the girl who first bullied her in middle school. She found that the girl had finished college and was working in the hotel industry.
“Sometimes I think I should get in touch and say, ‘Thank you for inspiring my career,’ ” Temkin said.