President Barack Obama
White House Conference on Bullying Prevention
East Room, the White House
March 10, 2011
MRS. OBAMA: Good morning. Thank you. Everyone, please. Good morning, and welcome to the White House.
I want to thank all of you for joining us here today to discuss an issue of great concern to me and to Barack, not just as President and as First Lady, but as a mom and a dad. And that is the problem of bullying in our schools and in our communities.
As parents, this issue really hits home for us. As parents, it breaks our hearts to think that any child feels afraid every day in the classroom, or on the playground, or even online. It breaks our hearts to think about any parent losing a child to bullying, or just wondering whether their kids will be safe when they leave for school in the morning.
And as parents, Barack and I also know that sometimes, maybe even a lot of the time, it’s really hard for parents to know what’s going on in our kids’ lives.
We don’t always know, because they don’t always tell us every little detail. We know that from Sasha. Sasha’s response is — “What happened at school today?” “Nothing.” That’s it. It’s like, well, we’re taking you out of that school.
So as parents, we know we need to make a real effort to be engaged in our children’s lives, to listen to them and be there for them when they need us. We need to get involved in their schools and in their activities so that we know what they’re up to, both in and out of the classroom. And when something is wrong, we need to speak up, and we need to take action.
That’s just what Jacqui Knight did. She’s a mom from Moore, Oklahoma, who’s here with us today. We got a chance to spend some time with her before. But when her child was bullied, she got together with other parents and planned community meetings where parents and students could share their stories. They also held meetings for the public to raise awareness about bullying. And they’ve been meeting with the school board and superintendent to discuss steps that they can take to keep their kids safe.
But parents aren’t the only ones who have a responsibility. We all need to play a role — as teachers, coaches, as faith leaders, elected officials, and anyone who’s involved in our children’s lives. And that doesn’t just mean working to change our kids’ behavior and recognize and reward kids who are already doing the right thing. It means thinking about our own behavior as adults as well.
We all know that when we, as adults, treat others with compassion and respect, when we take the time to listen and give each other the benefit of the doubt in our own adult lives, that sets an example for our children. It sends a message to our kids about how they treat others.
So we all have a lot of work to do in this country on this issue. And I hope that all of you, and everyone who is watching online, will walk away from this day, from this conference, with new ideas and solutions that you can all take back to your own schools and your own communities. And I hope that all of us will step up and do our part to keep our kids safe, and to give them everything they need to learn and grow and fulfill their dreams.
So with that, it is my pleasure to introduce this guy here — my husband and our President, President Barack Obama.
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you. Thank you, everybody. Thank you. Thank you, everybody. Thank you. Well, welcome to the White House. I want to thank Michelle for her introduction, and for marrying me — and for putting up with me.
I want to reiterate what Michelle said. Preventing bullying isn’t just important to us as President and First Lady; it’s important for us as parents — something we care deeply about.
We’re joined here by several members of Congress who’ve shown real leadership in taking up this cause. We’ve got a number of members of my administration with us today who are going to help us head up the efforts that come out of the White House on this issue. And I want to point out Judge Katherine O’Malley, the First Lady of Maryland. She is right here — Katherine. Thank you for being here. Thank you all for being here. You have a chance to make an enormous difference, and you already have.
Bullying isn’t a problem that makes headlines every day. But every day it touches the lives of young people all across this country. I want to thank all of you for participating in this conference. But more importantly, I want to thank you for being part of what’s a growing movement — led by young people themselves — to put a stop to bullying, whether it takes place in school or it’s taking place online.
And that’s why we’re here today. 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. Bullying can have destructive consequences for our young people. And it’s not something we have to accept. As parents and students, as teachers and members of the community, we can take steps — all of us — to help prevent bullying and create a climate in our schools in which all of our children can feel safe; a climate in which they all can feel like they belong.
As adults, we all remember what it was like to see kids picked on in the hallways or in the schoolyard. And I have to say, with big ears and the name that I have, I wasn’t immune. I didn’t emerge unscathed. But because it’s something that happens a lot, and it’s something that’s always been around, sometimes we’ve turned a blind eye to the problem. We’ve said, “Kids will be kids.” And so sometimes we overlook the real damage that bullying can do, especially when young people face harassment day after day, week after week.
So consider these statistics. A third of middle school and high school students have reported being bullied during the school year. Almost 3 million students have said they were pushed, shoved, tripped, even spit on. It’s also more likely to affect kids that are seen as different, whether it’s because of the color of their skin, the clothes they wear, the disability they may have, or sexual orientation.
And bullying has been shown to lead to absences and poor performance in the classroom. And that alone should give us pause, since no child should be afraid to go to school in this country.
Today, bullying doesn’t even end at the school bell — it can follow our children from the hallways to their cell phones to their computer screens. And in recent months, a series of tragedies has drawn attention to just how devastating bullying can be. We have just been heartbroken by the stories of young people who endured harassment and ridicule day after day at school, and who ultimately took their own lives. These were kids brimming with promise — kids like Ty Field, kids like Carl Walker-Hoover — who should have felt nothing but excitement for the future. Instead, they felt like they had nowhere to turn, as if they had no escape from taunting and bullying that made school something they feared. I want to recognize Ty’s mom and dad who are here today; Carl’s mother and sister who are here today. They’ve shown incredible courage as advocates against bullying in memory of the sons and the brother that they’ve lost. And so we’re so proud of them and we’re grateful to them for being here today.
No family should have to go through what these families have gone through. No child should feel that alone. We’ve got to make sure our young people know that if they’re in trouble, there are caring adults who can help and young adults that can help; that even if they’re having a tough time, they’re going to get through it, and there’s a whole world full of possibility waiting for them. We also have to make sure we’re doing everything we can so that no child is in that position in the first place. And this is a responsibility we all share — a responsibility we have to teach all children the Golden Rule: We should treat others the way we want to be treated.
The good news is, people are stepping up and accepting responsibility. They’re refusing to turn a blind eye to this problem. The PTA is launching a new campaign to get resources and information into the hands of parents. MTV is leading a new coalition to fight bullying online, and they’re launching a series of ads to talk about the damage that’s done when kids are bullied for the color of their skin or their religion or being gay or just being who they are. Others are leading their own efforts here today. And across the country, parents and students and teachers at the local level are taking action as well. They’re fighting not only to change rules and policies, but also to create a stronger sense of community and respect in their schools.
Joining this conference today is a young man I just had a chance to meet, Brandon Greene from Rhode Island. Brandon is 14 years old. Back in 6th grade, when he was just a kid, he did a class project on bullying. Now, two years later, it’s a school-wide organization with 80 members. They do monthly surveys in their school to track bullying rates. And what they realized is that stopping bullying isn’t just about preventing bad behavior — it’s also about working together and creating a positive atmosphere. So Brandon and his fellow committee members are now also doing activities like coat drives and community service at their school. And it’s making a real difference. So we’re very proud of Brandon and the great work he’s doing.
There are stories like this all across the country, where young people and their schools have refused to accept the status quo. And I want you all to know that you have a partner in the White House. As the former head of Chicago’s public schools, nobody understands this issue better than my Education Secretary, Arne Duncan. He’s going to be working on it, along with our Health Secretary, Kathleen Sebelius. Arne is going to head up our administration’s efforts, which began last year with a first-of-its-kind summit on bullying.
And we’re also launching a new resource called stopbullying.gov, which has more information for parents and for teachers. And as part of our education reform efforts, we’re encouraging schools to ask students themselves about school safety and how we can address bullying and other related problems — because, as every parent knows, sometimes the best way to find out what’s happening with our kids is to ask, even if you have to — if it’s in the case of Sasha, you have to keep on asking.
Now, as adults, we can lose sight of how hard it can be sometimes to be a kid. And it’s easy for us to forget what it was like to be teased or bullied. But it’s also easy to forget the natural compassion and the sense of decency that our children display each and every day — when they’re given a chance.
A couple other young people that I just had a chance to meet — Sarah and Emily Buder, who are here from California. They’re right here next to the First Lady. And Sarah and Emily, they read a story about a girl named Olivia in a nearby town — this is a girl they didn’t know — who had faced a lot of cruel taunting in school and online because she had had an epileptic seizure in class. So they decided to write Olivia a letter, and asked their friends to do the same.
They figured they’d send Olivia about 50 letters. But in the months that followed, thousands and thousands of letters poured in from every corner of the country — it really tapped into something. A lot of the letters were from young people, and they wanted to wish Olivia well, and let her know that somebody out there was talking — was thinking about her, and let her know that she wasn’t alone. And because those children treated Olivia with that small measure of kindness, it helped Olivia see that there was light at the end of the tunnel.
The fact is, sometimes kids are going to make mistakes, sometimes they’re going to make bad decisions. That’s part of growing up. But it’s our job to be there for them, to guide them, and to ensure that they can grow up in an environment that not only encourages their talents and intelligence, but also their sense of empathy and their regard for one another.
And that’s what ultimately this conference is all about. And that’s why all the issues that we’re talking about really matter. And that’s how we’re going to prevent bullying and create an environment where every single one of our children can thrive.
So thank you for the good work that you’re already doing, and I’m sure you’re going to come up with some terrific ideas during the course of this conference. Thank you very much.
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