Friday, August 13, 2010

Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli Speaks at the Department of Education’s Bullying Summit

Washington, D.C. ~ Thursday, August 12, 2010

Exerts from his speach are as follows:

"research revealed, for instance, that exposure to violence – whether the child was an observer or a direct victim – was associated with long-term physical, psychological, and emotional harm. The studies showed that children exposed to violence are more likely to go on to abuse drugs and alcohol. They’re at greater risk of depression, anxiety, and other post-traumatic disorders. They fail in school more often than other kids. They’re more likely to develop chronic diseases and to have trouble forming emotional attachments. And they’re more likely to commit acts of violence themselves.

We know that bullying has lasting, serious effects for both victims and perpetrators, and that bullying can be a sign of other serious anti-social and violent behavior. The Health Resources and Services Administration reports that kids who bully are more likely to get into frequent fights, vandalize and steal property, be truant or drop out of school, and carry a weapon. And these impacts are long-lasting, as the research tells us there is a strong association between victimizing peers during school years and engaging in illegal behavior as adults. Indeed, just two weeks ago when I was visiting the Menominee Indian Reservation of Wisconsin, tribal leaders emphasized the direct link between bullying among youth and occurrences of domestic violence in later years.

So if we realize that bullying is not just a school’s problem, how do we respond to it? When I was a kid, students were bullied for being overweight or for being labeled a nerd, not for being gay or because of sexual promiscuity. And the sitcom response from the 1960s and 70s was for parents to give kids boxing gloves because, we were taught, that if you have the courage to fight back, the bully backs down.

But bullying is not that simple and the notion that “kids will be kids” isn’t an answer to problem. When we talk about bullying, we are talking about a destabilizing force that not only disrupts the school environment; it disrupts young lives in serious, far-reaching ways, with dangerous academic, health, and safety consequences. From this summit and the work you all are doing, we know that bullying starts early; that bullying is widespread; that it escalates when unchecked, and that it takes many forms and is evolving. And as the tragic suicides of Megan Meier and Phoebe Prince make apparent, we know that bullying can also be fatal.

With the increasing use of social networking sites and text messaging, the face of bullying is changing. Previously, an incident may have involved girls bickering with each other over boys on the playground. Today, insults – and retaliation for insults -- are not only made face-to-face, they are also posted on a classmate’s Facebook profile for all to see. As the internet becomes today’s playground, the previous distinction between what took place inside and outside of school is disappearing. Unsurprisingly, teachers are now spending time mediating conflicts between students that began online or through text messages.

What’s more, the apparent anonymity offered by technology can lead to more vicious insults. It is apparent that children (and frankly adults) are willing to push the envelope in cyberspace and say malicious things that they might not otherwise say in person. Never before has particularly cruel harassment from school persisted as long as it does now online, where for example, a Facebook group, populated with hundreds of members, is dedicated solely to making fun of a fellow classmate because of his hair color. The Journal of Adolescent Health reported that the number of adolescent victims of online harassment increased by 50 percent between 2000 and 2005. And as students become more technologically sophisticated at younger ages, they learn early on that the Internet can be a powerful, and hurtful, tool.

Bullying is changing in other ways as well, as harassment has also become increasingly sexually explicit. In Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, middle school, high school, and college students posted comments on a web site that were full of sexual innuendo attacking fellow students. The online message boards had been accessed more than 67,000 times in a two-week period. This type of far-reaching harassment haunts and torments kids who are keenly aware that not just a few classmates can view these posts, but the whole world can view the disparaging comments. And with the widespread use of text messaging, an increase in “sexting” has also become a complication for combating bullying, where, with just the click of a cell phone button, an angry boyfriend can retaliate by forwarding compromising photos of a middle school girlfriend to his adolescent classmates.

And for gay and lesbian students, who are now coming out at earlier ages, bullying at school is also on the rise. According to a study released by the California Safe Schools Coalition, more than 200,000 California students are targets of harassment every year, based on actual or perceived sexual orientation. The study tells us that these 200,000 students are three times more likely to miss school because they feel unsafe, and are more than twice as likely to be depressed, to consider suicide, or to make a plan for suicide.