Of the guests welcomed to the White House for a summit on national bullying prevention efforts, one advocate had to decline the Thursday invite for a heartbreaking reason: Tammy Aaberg, a Minnesota mother whose teenage son, Justin, was the target of antigay bullying and committed suicide in July, would have celebrated his 16th birthday today.
"I'm very hopeful," Aaberg told The Advocate in an e-mail, "that with all the knowledge and experience of the people attending that something very positive will come out of the conference in which the President, as well as the entire country, can make very beneficial and drastic changes needed to enforce the bullying going on in all schools."
A pervasive issue in American schools that only last year garnered significant media attention with stories of teen suicide, bullying -- its causes, its consequences, and what can be done to prevent it -- was the subject of the multipronged conference, one that addressed how to hold school districts accountable and how to combat insidious and growing challenges such as cyberbullying.
"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," President Barack Obama said alongside First Lady Michelle Obama during remarks in the East Room. "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."
The White House's call for safer schools was echoed on Capitol Hill by Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota, who along with Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado reintroduced legislation that would explicitly prohibit schools from discriminating against students based on sexual orientation and gender identity or ignoring harassment based on those classifications.
Senator Franken told The Advocate he was hopeful that the bill, known as the Student Non-Discrimination Act, would be included in the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, to be voted on this year.
According to a study released in September by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, 85% of LGBT students surveyed said they've been bullied at school. Although there has been an increase in the availability of LGBT support groups and resources in schools nationwide, the use of gay slurs among youths has not decreased significantly in the last five years, the study found.
"For any colleague who doesn't support this legislation, I'd remind them that more than one third of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth have attempted suicide, in many cases because of the bullying and harassment these students face at school," Franken told The Advocate. "We have an obligation to make sure these students are safe at school."
In a conference call to discuss the summit with reporters, Kevin Jennings, assistant deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, said that the lack of sexual orientation protections in federal civil rights law hinders the collection of data on discrimination or bullying faced by LGBT youth.
Administration officials who participated at Thursday's conference included Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett, and Domestic Policy Council director Melody Barnes. The summit took place in conjunction with the unveiling of StopBullying.gov, a resource for parents, youth, and educators dealing with bullying issues.
"At the federal level, we want to make sure you have all the available tools you need to succeed," Secretary Sebelius told the estimated 150 bullying prevention advocates Thursday.
Of the parents in attendance at the White House who had lost children to suicide as the result of bullying, President Obama said, "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."
Click here for an Advocate commentary on LGBT issues in school curricula by Stuart Biegel, a member of the education and law faculty at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of The Right to Be Out: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in America's Public Schools (University of Minnesota Press).