A call from First Lady Michelle Obama and the President of the United States to stop bullying wherever it erodes our society was answered in the East Room Thursday March 3, by Americans of all ages, sizes, colors, physical challenges, a variety of experience and expertise – all directly or indirectly touched by the residue of bullying: damage, destruction and possible death.
With opening remarks from Michelle Obama clearly speaking as a mother, the first lady shared a Sasha story revealing the typical one word answers American parents receive on those few occasions in which the entire family sits together for dinner. Asking “What happened in school today, the First Lady received the same top secret code we’ve all heard from family students, “nothing.” In her story, Mrs. Obama retorted. “well, we’re taking you out of that school.” She got great laughs, but lost little time getting to the seriousness of bullying, stressing that “as parents it breaks our hearts to think that any child feels afraid every day in the classroom, or on the playground or online.”
In acknowledging and praising parents who are already addressing bullying issues in schools, the First Lady insisted, all of us must join this effort, “as teachers, coaches, elected officials and anyone who is involved in our children’s lives.” Mrs. Obama cautioned this will require not only a change in the behavior of our children, “but, our selves, as adults,” because how adults respond to the bully and the victim teaches our children how to think about this troubling social and psychological issue. The First Lady’s opening remarks were clearly a call to action for everyone to keep our children safe. With that she introduced “this guy” to us with, “my husband and our President: President Barack Obama.”
Like any good wing man, the President stepped center stage on cue welcoming us to the White House and thanking Michelle for her remarks and for “marrying me.” The President praised members of Congress and his administration who are actively involved in finding solutions for this problem, with a special mention of Maryland’s First Lady Judge Catherine O’Malley.
The President admitted “bullying isn’t a problem that makes headlines every day, but everyday it touches the lives of young people all over this country.” He then thanked all present for “being a part of what’s a growing movement led by young people themselves, to put a stop to bullying, whether it takes place in the school, or whether it takes place online.” At issue for the President seemed to be the dispelling of the myth that bullying is just a harmless part of growing up. “It’s not,” he said emphatically.
Obama challenged all of us to create a climate in school in which all students feel safe. The President sited sadly impressive statistics involving the bullying of a third of Middle and High School students – everything from being pushed to being spat upon. In addition with today’s technology, bullying can now follow students 24/7 to their homes, even their bedrooms.
In attendance were parents and relatives of those who have paid the ultimate price of bullying, and the President acknowledged their courage in attending. Among others Kirk and Laura Smalley who lost their 11-year old son Ty Field after two years of school bullying.
The “young people” the President said are leading the way included 14 year old Randy from Rhode Island, whose sixth grade class project educated a community that bullying isn’t just about bad behavior, but general civility toward each other. Other youth leaders in attendance were authors of “Letters to a Bullied Girl,” Emily and 18 year old Sarah Buder who hearing of Olivia, bullied after an epileptic attack in class, began a letter writing campaign of healing and encouragement for the young victim. What followed was a campaign of thousands of supportive letters for Olivia, a bully victim Sarah didn’t even know.
With this conference, both First Lady and President launched, like Kennedy’s “a man on the moon,” a clear goal of substance and unity to eradicate bullying in all its locations, formats and ramifications.
Following the Obamas’ opening, we were treated to an amazing panel of experts chaired by Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett, who delivered a most informative Q&A, before attendees were invited to join in smaller group discussions.
Clearly the day’s message to bully victims was each child must know they have an adult they can trust and turn to for help, or as President Obama put it, “you have a partner in the White House.”