It is a meaningful coincidence that this critical political month of October marks Bullying Prevention Month across the U.S. With just weeks to go before Election Day, and undecided voters still searching for meaningful points of contrast between the two candidates, they need look no further than to the relative seriousness with which Governor Romney and President Obama have reacted to the epidemic of bullying in this country.
It is hardly contestable that bullying has become a profoundly serious problem, especially amidst children’s unsupervised and increasing use of texts and the Internet to communicate with one another. The statistics and stories documenting bullying and “cyberbullying,” in particular its connection to teen suicides, are heart-stopping. In just one school district in Minnesota, for instance, nine middle and high school students committed suicide in a single year, including three who were gay or lesbian.
Gender-based bullying is particularly rampant. In fact, it has been recently estimated that a staggering 35% of LGBT youth have attempted suicide at least once. And just last week, 15 year-old Amanda Todd took her own life weeks after posting a heartbreaking video to YouTube, where she silently chronicles years of torment by bullies, which began when a topless photo of her was spread around the Internet. These tragedies have occurred in nearly every corner of the country and continue to pervade every school in our nation.
In May, the Washington Post broke a story about Mitt Romney bullying a gay teenage boy in his high school days at the prestigious Cranbrook School in Michigan. John Lauber, a younger, soft-spoken boy apparently incensed Romney by wearing his long blonde hair in a pony tail to school. So, one day, with his prep school posse in tow, Romney allegedly orchestrated an attack on Lauber that was described later by a classmate who witnessed the event: Romney tackled Lauber to the to the ground and pinned him, and “as Lauber, his eyes filling with tears, screamed for help, Romney repeatedly clipped his hair with a pair of scissors… Romney then led his cheering schoolmates back to his bay-windowed room in Stevens Hall.”
When asked about the incident, Romney stated simply that he had no memory of the event. “I don’t recall.” And the story drifted away into the archives of yesterday’s news. But this event did not so breathlessly move into the recesses of the memories of the witnesses to the attack, and certainly, not the victim’s, who admitted years later that it was “horrible” — something he “thought about a lot since then.” They’re not over it. And neither am I.
What Romney’s conveniently amnesic response told me is that this is a story hardly worth the paper it was printed on. That it was nonpolitical and unremarkable. But as the sister of a teen suicide victim, who herself was a gender bender and the target of sex-based harassment in school, this is an issue that cuts to the heart of my politics.
Never mind that I don’t believe Mitt Romney when he says he doesn’t remember the incident, and don’t much appreciate his disingenuousness, I am, to put it mildly, disappointed that Governor Romney did not take the opportunity back in May to articulate his stance on bullying in schools — if he even has one. I frankly don’t care that Mitt Romney was a bully when he was seventeen, what I care about is what he’s going to do about the devastation behavior — like his own — causes children every day in our nation’s schools if he becomes president. And how he plans to address the fact that 160,000 children stay home every day, missing out on their education because they are afraid to face the abuse. If his indifferent response to this story tells us anything, it’s that peer-on-peer bullying is, at best, a non-issue for him, and, at worst, an issue he specifically intends to desert, despite the Obama administration’s extensive efforts to address it.
Advancing protections for victims of gender-based bullying certainly was not a priority for Romney as Governor of Massachusetts, where in 2006 his administration blocked publication of a state anti-bullying guide for Massachusetts public schools because — as was revealed through a public records request made by the Boston Globe — officials in the administration objected to the use of the terms “bisexual” and “transgender” in passages intended to protect certain students from gender-based harassment. I doubt much will change if he is to become president.
While Mitt Romney clearly has no intention to bring any leadership to bear on this epidemic, President Obama has very publicly expressed his personal intolerance of bullying and the seriousness with which his administration regards the problem.
In the first ever White House Conference on Bullying Prevention, President Obama stated in opening, “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.” He later added, “We have an obligation to ensure that our schools are safe for all of our kids. Every single young person deserves the opportunity to learn and grow and achieve their potential, without having to worry about the constant threat of harassment.”
This rhetoric in turn has been met with action by the Administration. The Department of Education, under Obama’s tutelage and as part of the Administration’s comprehensive inter-agency approach to end bullying, released in 2010 a momentous Dear Colleague Letter, sent to local educators in support of their efforts to combat bullying in schools. The Letter was replete with concrete illustrations, defining when student bullying violates federal anti-discrimination laws and explaining how a school may and must respond. This guidance was supported by the Administration’s launch of the Stop Bullying Now Campaign and http://www.bullyinginfo.org, a national database of effective anti-bullying programs, and was followed up by technical assistance workshops held around the country, designed to help educators understand their obligations and use resources effectively to end bullying.
This kind of executive leadership, a hopeful first step, has become imperative in light of recent First Amendment challenges to schools’ anti-bulling policies, many of which argue that such policies are an attempt to stifle viewpoints opposed to homosexuality, and even that initiatives aimed at ending gender-based bullying and teen suicide are attempts to indoctrinate children on the issue of sexual preference. Schools have found themselves hamstrung, caught between their obligation to protect bullied children, and the confines of the First Amendment.
Just this week the New York Times reported that hundreds of public schools had cancelled their annual “Mix it Up at Lunch Day” — a program intended to break up cliques and discourage bullying — in the wake of a conservative evangelical group’s insistence that the project was “a nationwide push to promote the homosexual lifestyle in schools” and imploring parents to keep their kids home from school. Clearly, schools are in desperate need of ongoing national leadership on this issue in light of their competing concerns and legal obligations. Mitt Romney has shown no inkling that he is willing or prepared to do it. President Obama on the other hand has gone to great lengths, despite the issue’s failure to carry great political clout, to bring that leadership to bear.
All of our schoolchildren, God willing, will be adults one day. They may outgrow some of their insecurities and reflect on their cruelty. They may even look back on their experiences with a kind of Rockwellian nostalgia, their childhood traumas muted by time and maturity, as perhaps Mitt Romney does when he “recalls” his school days in Michigan. But that does not change the fact that many children, if they do survive, will not escape this initiation into adulthood without battle wounds that either weaken or inure them for life. And it does not change the fact that the most tender, impressionable, moments of our children’s coming of age will be marked by the sharp knife of bigotry and intolerance of difference.
I’ll be the first to acknowledge, having been made painfully aware by my own experience, that a child’s suicide is itself a profoundly complicated issue. Incessant bullying may only brush the surface of the complex psychological explanations for particular incidences of teen suicide, but that in no way renders the phenomenon irrelevant to understanding why these tragedies happen and how to prevent them.
We need an administration that takes our children’s lives and educations seriously, not just as a matter of proclaimed policy, painted in broad strokes and useful as a sound bite in a debate, but as an issue that is essentially and deeply personal, as much as it is political. I for one would rather have our president as the one guiding our educational polices, a man who, in his own words, explains that even if bullying “isn’t a problem that makes headlines every day… every day it touches the lives of young people all across this country.” In fact, I would take our president every day of the school week over a Governor who simply “doesn’t recall.”