Justice News

Associate Attorney General Tom Perrelli Speaks at the Department of Education’s Bullying Summit
Washington, DC
United States
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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Good morning and thank you. I am very happy to be joining you today on behalf of the Department of Justice. It is great to see Secretary Duncan and the Department of Education taking leadership on this important issue through this Anti-Bullying Summit. The Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools is doing great work, and I’m pleased to be with all of you here today.

I am pleased to be here for two reasons. First and foremost, I am a parent. I have two sons, and, like all parents, I want them to have every opportunity in life. I know that education will be their key, as it was for me. To that end, I want my sons to be safe in school, and without fear of harassment by fellow students. Our nation’s children deserve a learning environment that allows them to reach their full potential, and no child should be scared to go to school because of bullying. What all of you in this room are doing matters to me personally.

What you are doing also matters to me professionally. It isn’t often that, as Associate Attorney General, I get to walk into a room full of educators and education advocates. I think that in many communities, and for many Americans, what the Department does and what so many of you do are thought of as opposite ends of the spectrum. The theory goes that students have had to make choices and they can either make good choices, and succeed in school, or they can make bad choices, and end up in the criminal justice system. The theory would follow that you take care of the good kids and get them to college, and we take care of the bad kids and get them off the streets.

One of the reasons I am here today is because you and I know that that’s not how the world works. People who actually work in law enforcement, and people who actually work in our nation’s schools, know that our jobs are closely interwoven. When their neighborhoods and homes don’t feel safe, our children have a tough time focusing in school. And when our children are not engaged at school – if they are bullying others or being bullied – we know that can lead them onto a path to the criminal justice system, for bullies and victims alike.

Attorney General Janet Reno really drove this point home to me when I worked for her back in the 1990s. I remember once, when she was on a long plane flight, she took out a pen and paper and outlined everything that was required to reduce crime and keep communities safe. A number of the things on that list focused on what we think of as traditional law enforcement issues: Do we have enough officers on the streets? Are those officers using the right techniques? Are we being smart in how we prosecute crime?

But what stood out to me most was how many of the elements on that list were things that most people never think of as law enforcement issues. She started with pre-natal care, and her list included Head Start and available childcare for working families. Wherever one thinks we should start, we all know that it takes a lot more than police, prosecutors and prisons to make a community safe. You need people who watch out for each other and who have a stake in their community. You need an economic base that keeps people engaged and relatively free from need. And you need safe schools.

Our current Attorney General has a similarly broad view about how to make communities safe. When Attorney General Eric Holder served as Deputy Attorney General during the 1990s, he was struck by the research that showed that for every child who ends up in the criminal justice system, there were 40, 50, 100 opportunities for intervention early in life that were missed. He led the Department to take an in-depth look at the problem of children exposed to violence and uncovered some deeply troubling facts. That research revealed, for instance, that exposure to violence – whether the child was an observer or a direct victim – was associated with long-term physical, psychological, and emotional harm. The studies showed that children exposed to violence are more likely to go on to abuse drugs and alcohol. They’re at greater risk of depression, anxiety, and other post-traumatic disorders. They fail in school more often than other kids. They’re more likely to develop chronic diseases and to have trouble forming emotional attachments. And they’re more likely to commit acts of violence themselves.

The work that he started has continued to this day, and we have doubled down on it upon his return as Attorney General. Last fall, through our , which is the first comprehensive look at children as victims and witnesses of crime, abuse, and violence from infancy to age 17 and which is an outgrowth of then-Deputy Attorney General Holder’s initiative from more than a decade ago, the Department of Justice found that most children are exposed to violence in their daily lives. Indeed, the study found that the majority of our kids – more than 60 percent – have been exposed to crime, abuse, and violence. And the Department has renewed its efforts in this area, beginning a new pilot program to address the problem of children exposed to violence.

And all that helps explain why I am here and why the work that you do is so extraordinarily important. We know that bullying has lasting, serious effects for both victims and perpetrators, and that bullying can be a sign of other serious anti-social and violent behavior. The Health Resources and Services Administration reports that kids who bully are more likely to get into frequent fights, vandalize and steal property, be truant or drop out of school, and carry a weapon. And these impacts are long-lasting, as the research tells us there is a strong association between victimizing peers during school years and engaging in illegal behavior as adults. Indeed, just two weeks ago when I was visiting the Menominee Indian Reservation of Wisconsin, tribal leaders emphasized the direct link between bullying among youth and occurrences of domestic violence in later years.

So if we realize that bullying is not just a school’s problem, how do we respond to it? When I was a kid, students were bullied for being overweight or for being labeled a nerd, not for being gay or because of sexual promiscuity. And the sitcom response from the 1960s and 70s was for parents to give kids boxing gloves because, we were taught, that if you have the courage to fight back, the bully backs down.

But bullying is not that simple and the notion that “kids will be kids” isn’t an answer to problem. When we talk about bullying, we are talking about a destabilizing force that not only disrupts the school environment; it disrupts young lives in serious, far-reaching ways, with dangerous academic, health, and safety consequences. From this summit and the work you all are doing, we know that bullying starts early; that bullying is widespread; that it escalates when unchecked, and that it takes many forms and is evolving. And as the tragic suicides of Megan Meier and Phoebe Prince make apparent, we know that bullying can also be fatal.

With the increasing use of social networking sites and text messaging, the face of bullying is changing. Previously, an incident may have involved girls bickering with each other over boys on the playground. Today, insults – and retaliation for insults -- are not only made face-to-face, they are also posted on a classmate’s Facebook profile for all to see. As the internet becomes today’s playground, the previous distinction between what took place inside and outside of school is disappearing. Unsurprisingly, teachers are now spending time mediating conflicts between students that began online or through text messages.

What’s more, the apparent anonymity offered by technology can lead to more vicious insults. It is apparent that children (and frankly adults) are willing to push the envelope in cyberspace and say malicious things that they might not otherwise say in person. Never before has particularly cruel harassment from school persisted as long as it does now online, where for example, a Facebook group, populated with hundreds of members, is dedicated solely to making fun of a fellow classmate because of his hair color. The Journal of Adolescent Health reported that the number of adolescent victims of online harassment increased by 50 percent between 2000 and 2005. And as students become more technologically sophisticated at younger ages, they learn early on that the Internet can be a powerful, and hurtful, tool.

Bullying is changing in other ways as well, as harassment has also become increasingly sexually explicit. In Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, middle school, high school, and college students posted comments on a web site that were full of sexual innuendo attacking fellow students. The online message boards had been accessed more than 67,000 times in a two-week period. This type of far-reaching harassment haunts and torments kids who are keenly aware that not just a few classmates can view these posts, but the whole world can view the disparaging comments. And with the widespread use of text messaging, an increase in “sexting” has also become a complication for combating bullying, where, with just the click of a cell phone button, an angry boyfriend can retaliate by forwarding compromising photos of a middle school girlfriend to his adolescent classmates.

And for gay and lesbian students, who are now coming out at earlier ages, bullying at school is also on the rise. According to a study released by the California Safe Schools Coalition, more than 200,000 California students are targets of harassment every year, based on actual or perceived sexual orientation. The study tells us that these 200,000 students are three times more likely to miss school because they feel unsafe, and are more than twice as likely to be depressed, to consider suicide, or to make a plan for suicide.

Laying out the problem and its long-term consequences certainly makes it feel daunting, and the fact that bullying will continue to evolve makes it feel even more daunting. But we have to start where the research tells us to start – like so many other things, bullying and its consequences are preventable and require early intervention to break the chain of events that will lead a bully or a victim to other behaviors later on that may intersect with the criminal justice system. On this, we all have a role to play. The question is – how do we do it?

A first step is the recognition that we are all in this together and that means that teachers, principals, parents, and yes, law enforcement must model caring behavior for our children and promote communication. It means teaching our kids how to care for themselves, how to care for each other, and how to care for their communities, through group community service requirements or student-to-student mentorship programs. When Secretary Duncan and the Attorney General did a forum with high school students on healthy relationships in December, you saw the power of peers helping peers to deal with some of the most difficult aspects of learning and growing up. While adults need to model the right behaviors and provide supervisions, the power of peers should not be underestimated.

And that leads to a second step, which is fostering a sense of responsibility among our young people. We know that students observe bullying all the time, but rarely report it or often don’t take action to stop it. This bystander problem is not unique to today’s subject matter. Early this year, Justice Department officials did a coordinated swing through colleges and universities to highlight the problem of sexual assault and abuse on college campuses, with a particular focus on enlisting bystanders as forces to stop the abuse. We must promote responsibility and integrity in our schools – and specifically, the duty to others, and the duty to report. By activating bystanders in this way, and then following up with consistent responses to when incidents are reported, schools can convey the message that bullying is monitored closely, by both teachers and fellow students, and it will not be tolerated.

I know that most of what I have said doesn’t sound like what most people think the Justice Department does. But our philosophy is not just that you have to be tough on crime, but you have to be smart on crime. That requires looking at the science and supporting programs that are evidence-based and have a track record or a likelihood of success. And that means recognizing the seeds of problems that will occur later on and investing in initiatives that will actually prevent crime and ensure that our children grow up health, whether its peer counseling, mentoring, after-school programs, character education, and many of the other activities to which you devote your time. Only through initiatives that address these issues in the developmental stages, can we prevent them from intensifying into serious criminal justice problems that create widespread harm for all of our communities in the long-run.

I am here to thank you for your efforts and for the work that you do every day. You have an ally in the U.S. Department of Justice, because the needs of the most precious and most vulnerable among us – our children – are a top priority for us. We are lucky to have, in Eric Holder, an Attorney General who has always understood the connection between the education environment and public safety. And much of what we are doing in today’s Justice Department is based on our recognition that we need broad partnerships to make our communities safe. That means building and renewing coalitions among local communities. It means re-building the partnerships with state and local authorities who are the first responders to most crime in this country and who are best positioned to make our communities safer. And it means re-engaging with our partners in health care, education, and other areas not traditionally thought of as part of law enforcement.

At the Department of Justice, we have made an historic commitment to this work. I’m proud that, today, the Department is directing resources for the express purpose of reducing bullying in schools and to raising awareness around its ramifications, and, of course, to countering its negative impact. In particular, our Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention – or OJJDP – provides many resources that respond to the problems of bullying and cyber bullying, including online programs for kids, parents, educators, law enforcement, and community leaders.

I would like to highlight a couple of specific projects of ours that have shown positive results. For example, OJJDP's Model Programs Guide (MPG) is a user-friendly, online portal to scientifically tested and proven programs that address a range of issues across the juvenile justice spectrum. The MPG profiles nearly 200 prevention and intervention programs and helps communities identify those that best suit their needs.

Web Wise Kids is another initiative focused on empowering today's youth to make wise choices online. Through Internet Safety tips and state-of–the-art Internet Safety computer games, which are modeled after real-life scenarios, Web Wise Kids seeks to promote a safer, friendlier internet experience.

I am also proud to announce today two new anti-bullying initiatives spearheaded by the Department of Justice. First, OJJDP is developing a five-bulletin series on the topic of peer victimization in schools based on three studies funded by OJJDP and conducted by the National Center for School Engagement. The authors designed the studies to explore the connections between bullying and peer victimization, school engagement, and the outcomes for school attendance and educational achievement. These bulletins will be used nationwide by practitioners and policymakers to understand the problem of bullying, in order to devise effective ways of addressing it.

These practical recommendations, written in an accessible style for non-researchers, are based on the research, evaluation, and knowledge of real life situations in schools, classrooms, and neighborhoods. Scheduled to be released in late 2010 and early 2011, the bulletins will also provide resources to help individuals who work directly with youth, or who make decisions about how schools and communities respond to bullying, to find additional assistance in order to address peer victimization.

Second, OJJDP will develop a webinar using information and presentations from this Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention Summit so that we can deliver the message of the summit to wider audiences throughout the field. Scheduled to air approximately a month from now, the webinar will be available on OJJDP’s website and will serve as a free training tool for practitioners throughout the country.

And as many of you know, the Department of Justice is also combating bullying in the courtroom. This past January, the Department of Justice joined a lawsuit, which resulted in a settlement, on behalf of a student who was subjected to severe and pervasive harassment based on sex. Because this student failed to conform to gender stereotypes in behavior and appearance, he was bullied by fellow classmates. The harassment escalated from derogatory name-calling to physical threats and violence. We asserted that the school district knew of the harassment, yet was deliberately indifferent in its failure to take action.

The resulting settlement agreement required the school district to, among other things: retain an expert in the area of harassment based on sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation to review the District’s policies, and an expert to conduct annual training for staff and students on discrimination and harassment based on sex. The agreement also required the school district to implement a comprehensive plan for disseminating its harassment policies, and to maintain records of investigations and responses to allegations of harassment for five years.

To be clear, we don’t want to make excessive demands of our school administrators and educators, because I know that we already expect so much of them. We realize that educators are stretched thin and that these are difficult times. But, together, we have a duty to keep our children safe in school. All of us -- the federal government, local police officers, community leaders, teachers, coaches, principals, and – above all – parents have a responsibility to act. With a multi-tiered approach, involving school officials, community agencies, and the Department of Justice, our team efforts can pay huge dividends – for our nation’s children, for the safety of our communities, and for the future of our country.

I want to thank those of you who have seen the importance of this issue, and who have been working to improve the lives of our young people. I look forward to our continued partnerships to build school environments where our children can thrive.

Thank you.