President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama have had an enormous amount of face time on television since the Inaugural on Jan. 20. Just in the last few days we have seen the president ESPN, Jay Leno, and 60 Minutes and Michelle in the White House garden.
Let me softly suggest that the First Couple use their popularity to squelch the insidious and growing problem with schoolyard bullying.
School bullying is reaching epidemic proportions. An estimated 160,000 students in the United States per day are absent from school due to fear of attack or intimidation from bullies. According to a 2002 California student survey, one out of four students are victims of bullying on school property because of their race, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, religion or disability.
If 25 percent of America’s children had contracted West Nile Virus we would pour millions, if not billions, of dollars into strategies to eradicate the causal factors. The negative effects from consistent verbal and/or physical attacks from a school bully can cause long-lasting physical and mental health issues leading to violence as a means of getting back. In fact, in a groundbreaking study of school shootings, conducted by the U.S. Secret Service, the shooters commonly had been victims of harassment by peers.
Bullying is one of the most underrated problems in schools today. Far too often educators and parents believe that the bullies are not really causing serious harm, you know the axiom, “sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.” But words do hurt. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide rates among teenagers have tripled in the last few decades—especially teens dealing with issues of non-conforming gender roles, who are often targeted by bullies.
Using the Bully Pulpit (pun intended) the First Couple can have a monumental impact on the reduction of bullying. At the very least, the President and First Lady can use their popularity with school-age children to inform them about the issue and provide high-level counsel.
They should tell the story about the student who wore a pink polo shirt on the first day of school in Nova Scotia in 2007. Bullies harassed the boy, called him a homosexual, and threatened to beat him up. Two older students came to his defense and organized a pink T-Shirt Day. The media picked up the story and now we have an organized Pink Shirt Day in schools on February 25 to combat bullying.
Here are some of the things the president and First Lady might say in a conversation with the American people. Steven Spielberg can direct the spots:
• Parents must be vigilant about recognizing the signs of bullying: depression, sadness, non-communication, lower grades, substance abuse, and loss of friends.
• Administrators, teachers, and parents must form a strong alliance to effectively address the issue.
• Lines of communication with parents and children should be nurtured and kept open, even though in the middle-school years parent and child communication about school drops precipitously, especially for boys. Find ways and times to talk regularly with your children about school.
• Parents should inform the school principal if bullying issues are evident—and should expect improvement. If there is no improvement, meeting with district staff must be next, then legal counsel.
• Students must stand up for wrongs in schools and make them right by talking with administrators, teachers, and counselors.
• Litigation can ensue if bullying is not suppressed.
Let us seize this incredible moment to tackle one more issue. Si Se Puede.