Acting Associate Attorney General Tony West Speaks at the Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention 2012 Summit
Thank you, Mel, for your kind introduction and for reminding us of the vital work being done every day by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Let me also thank our partners at the Department of Education, and to Secretary Duncan, for hosting this summit and inviting me to participate.
It’s a real privilege to be with you this morning. I know that many of you have been instrumental in efforts to raise awareness about bullying, as well as how to prevent it, how to intervene to stop it, and how deal with it once it’s occurred. You remind us that bullying is not simply a part of growing up; that it’s not just a matter of “kids being kids.” You remind us that it’s unacceptable and it’s wrong and that we all share in the responsibility to prevent it. And many of you are helping to give us the tools we’ll need, the data we’ll reference and the strategies we’ll use as we seek to change policy and improve young lives.
I join you today not only as a representative of the Department of Justice but, like many of you, as one who is now or has been a parent, an uncle, or a godparent to children in elementary, middle or high school. And those experiences, coupled with the cases involving young victims of exploitation I prosecuted years ago as a federal prosecutor, have solidified for me a very straightforward idea – and it’s one that I know you share: that in order for our young people to thrive, to blossom, to grow and fulfill their potential, they must be and feel safe – not just at home, but in school, on the playground, and online.
But when nearly one in three middle and high school students report being bullied, and over half say they’ve witnessed bullying at school, we know that creating that sense of safety for our children won’t happen automatically. It happens only to the extent individuals, both old and young, make conscious choices -- often through acts of personal courage and outreach -- to create atmospheres of tolerance, climates of trust, environments both virtual and real where young people need not as the song says, “hide themselves in regret, but love themselves and be set,” and accept that invitation to be who they truly are.
For Attorney General Eric Holder and those of us at the Justice Department, this is important work about which we care deeply. We care about it because while we’ve seen overall school violence decrease in recent years, bullying incidents – many with devastatingly tragic consequences – have become increasingly visible in the public eye.
We care about this work we because we know that a majority of our children – over 60 percent, regardless of race – are exposed to some form of violence, crime, or abuse in their childhood – from brief encounters as witnesses to being direct victims themselves.
And we care about it because we know that some of that violence is linked to bullying. The research suggests that those who bully are more likely to grow up and abuse their partners, spouses or children. So when we talk about effectively protecting our young people from violence in the home, at school or on the streets, that conversation is incomplete if it fails to explore strategies to prevent and eliminate bullying .
I believe this work also matters because bullying, like youth violence, is not something that affects only those immediately involved; rather, it presents challenges that affect us all. When kids who are the targets of bullies show up in school, not ready to learn because they’re too afraid – students who are more likely, the research suggests, to have lower GPAs or poorer standardized test scores – that’s not just a challenge for the victim or his or her family; that becomes an education challenge.
And when those bullied children show up in doctor’s offices and clinics suffering from anxiety or depression or a whole host of other issues, that becomes a health care challenge.
And when those bullied victims leave school and can’t find jobs because they don’t have the skills employers need because, as the research indicates, they’re more likely to miss, skip, or drop out of school, then that becomes a business community challenge.
And when those who bully come into contact with the criminal justice system as convicted defendants, as they’re more likely to do, according to trends we see, then that becomes a law enforcement challenge.
So those single incidents of bullying are not events in isolation, one discrete from the other; they are like ripples in a lake that begin at a small center, emanating outward and growing in size, to touch shores unforeseen.
That’s why we care about this issue and this work. And it’s it why we’ve been actively engaged in efforts to prevent bullying.
In March of this year, for instance, the Departments of Justice and Education entered into a comprehensive consent decree with the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota, requiring action by school officials after a DOJ Civil Rights investigation revealed that several students were skipping school, dropping out, even contemplating suicide because of severe harassment based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation. After entry of the consent decree, one student noted that the climate at school had improved, saying that he’d gone a month and a half without being bullied. “That has never happened before,” he said. “I see change coming, and I’m really glad about it.”
We’ve also awarded grants to eight cities and tribal communities, as part of Attorney General Holder’s Defending Childhood Initiative – grants aimed at developing strategic plans for comprehensive, community-based anti-violence efforts, including anti-bullying programs. In Boston, Massachusetts, for example, we’re supporting work to implement state-wide school bullying intervention and prevention legislation. In Grand Forks, North Dakota, we’re funding efforts to expand restorative justice services for youth involved with bullying. And in Portland, Maine, we’re helping to train teachers and other school staff in bullying prevention strategies.
And the nation’s U.S. Attorneys are also engaged in this work. Attorney General Holder often says our U.S. Attorneys are community problem solvers, not case processors, and over the last two years they’ve helped to raise the spotlight on bullying prevention by convening community meetings, interagency summits and town halls in places like Detroit, Michigan; Portland, Oregon; Cleveland, Ohio; and next month, San Francisco, California.
Now, notwithstanding these efforts and all of the other progress we’ve made to elevate bullying prevention as an issue of national priority, our work is far from over. We must continue to stand up, to speak out, and to act in ways both big and small – public and private -- to reinforce the message that bullying knows no proper place.
We must continue to work because t oday, somewhere, there’s a child who will feel the sting of a punch because the clothes he’s wearing aren’t cool; who will believe her difference is a detriment as she eats alone in a crowded school cafeteria; who will skip school another day to avoid a terrifying confrontation; or will contemplate suicide because nothing seems like it can hurt more than this moment of humiliation right now.
And for each one of those kids – children we know, children we love, children who more than a few of us here were at one time – for each of them we can’t afford to be bystanders. And because of summits like this and commitment like yours, I’m confident that we won’t.
Thank you for everything you do on behalf of our Nation’s young people and thank you for inviting me to be with you this morning.