Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton on Thursday proposed a $500 million federal grant program to fight bullying in schools, describing the problem as a crisis that threatens the academic progress and mental and emotional health of too many children.
States could use the money for a range of efforts, from teacher training to suicide prevention programs to hiring more counselors and psychologists. But to be eligible, they would have to invest more themselves: They would get $4 in federal funds for every $1 in new resources they expend.
To qualify for the money, states also would have to pass “comprehensive” anti-bullying laws that address cyberbullying and verbal bullying and that explicitly protect children from bullying on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity — the latter a lightning rod at a time of great division over the treatment of transgender children at school.
“We know that bullying is a real problem in our classrooms, our playgrounds and online. And teachers have reported that this election has made it worse,” Clinton said at a campaign rally in Winston-Salem, N.C., on Thursday afternoon. “We’re going to launch a major new effort to help states and communities and schools and families end bullying wherever it takes place.”
Bullying rates have been on a downward trend during the past decade, a period in which schools, communities, nonprofit organizations and the Obama administration all worked to shine a light on the problem.
But abusive behavior remains a problem both in person and online: In 2013, 22 percent of students between the ages of 12 and 18 said they had been victims of bullying, according to the latest federal data available. Victims of bullying are more likely to abuse drugs and struggle with academics and depression, researchers say, and cellphones and social media have helped transform bullying from a schoolyard phenomenon into a 24/7 problem.
Clinton and her supporters argue that the problem of bullying has grown in the past year because of what they have dubbed the “Trump effect,” the result of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s rhetoric about Muslims, immigrants, women and disabled people trickling down into schools. Clinton’s campaign claims that Trump has inspired children to hurl insults and threats more frequently.
The campaign released a television ad Thursday featuring Bryce, a young man with muscular dystrophy, watching a clip of Trump mocking a disabled reporter. “His entire platform is hatred,” Bryce says. “I don’t want bullies in my life, and I especially don’t want one in the White House.”
Trump’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.
Anne McQuade, a New Hampshire teacher of students learning English as a second language, said her students — all immigrants and refugees — have become afraid that their family members will be deported. McQuade said that one Muslim student came to her in tears after being called a terrorist as she stepped off the school bus in her neighborhood.
“These beautiful, hopeful kids, they come to our country to find a better life, and we say to them, ‘Welcome to America,’ ” she told reporters on a conference call organized by the Clinton campaign. “But they watch television and they’re exposed to angry social media, and they hear a different message.”
Clinton’s proposed grant program would be administered by the Education Department, handing that agency more authority at a time when Congress has sought to scale back its power. The bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act, passed last year, shifts power over public schools back to the states after a broad backlash against an era of intensive federal intervention in education.
That new law consolidated or eliminated many federal programs — including some that addressed similar goals as Clinton’s “Better than Bullying” initiative — in an effort to give states more latitude in how they spend federal dollars. It is not clear whether Congress would be eager to authorize a new federal program.
Clinton campaign officials said that they want to give states flexibility and resources to attack the bullying problem as they see fit and that the program would be funding with the tax plan that Clinton has set forth.
Susan Swearer, a professor at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln who studies bullying, said that research has showed that the most effective programs work to curb bad behavior before it starts by talking to all students about the importance of kindness and the detrimental effects of bullying.
“It’s important for schools to have a clear plan and a system that impacts all students and adults at the school,” Swearer said. “A whole-school assembly or one talk in the fall isn’t going to alter bullying behavior.”
Swearer applauded Clinton’s focus on bullying and said that it is noteworthy that the issue has been raised during a presidential campaign.
“We really do need to have systematic and comprehensive federal support,” Swearer said. “Schools that are financially strapped don’t have resources to implement programming that we know is effective.”