U.S. Attorneys Take on Bullying in Comprehensive Civil Rights and Crime Strategies
At first glance, Janis Mohat, Abdikadir Kateba, and Diona Perry do not have much in common. They come from different backgrounds, live in different cities, observe different faiths. But the three do share a horrible bond. Their pride and joy – their children – were bullied. Not just the schoolyard taunts that most of us dealt with in one form or another over the years, but persistent, cruel, and sometimes violent bullying.
As parents around the country buy school supplies, see if the pants from last year fit, and go through the other annual rituals of another school year, the stories of Mohat, Kateba, and Perry provide cautionary tales and a call to action for the United States Attorneys, Civil Rights Division, other federal and local partners, and any parent who fears that their own child might be either on the receiving or giving end of such treatment.
Perry’s son, Brandon Young, was an honor student at John Hay High School in Cleveland when he was fatally shot in 2009 while walking near a park with his brother. Brandon was 17. His crime? Refusing to join the neighborhood street gang. Kateba moved to Kentucky from Somalia in 2005. Earlier this year, teachers found his eight-year-old son, Mohamed Hussein, hanging unconscious in a restroom stall at school. Mohamed told his father he was pushed into the stall and hung by other students who frequently picked on him. Mohat and her husband live in Mentor, Ohio, an upper-middle class suburb which has the largest school in the state. Their 17-year-old son, Eric, shot himself in 2007 after being constantly pushed, shoved, and being called names like “queer” and “fag” by other students. Perry, Kateba, and Mohat share a bond that no parent wants – the sometimes angry, sometimes frustrated, always anguished feeling that comes with seeing our children bullied.
Studies show that between 15 and 25 percent of students report being bullied. More than half – 56 percent – of students surveyed say they have witnessed some form of bullying at schools. Even as overall violence at schools has gone down in recent years, incidents of bullying have increased. And because of modern communications and technology, a bully can seem omnipresent. In the past, a kid could hide from the bully at recess, or the bullying typically stopped when the student got off the bus. But with the rise of smart phones, social media, and texting, a cyberbully can taunt his victim around the clock. In designing comprehensive anti-violence strategies, conducting Arab and Muslim engagement, and ramping up civil rights programs, U.S. Attorneys have found themselves in the middle of this problem. We know that we are not only in the business of punishing crime, but preventing crime in the first place.
U.S. Attorneys are uniquely situated to help solve this problem. Our jurisdiction crosses geographical boundaries, encompassing scores of school districts. We deal, on a daily basis, with crimes of violence, of civil rights violations, of people being targeted because of their race, religion or sexual orientation – often underlying factors in bullying incidents. We also have the power to convene federal partners, community leaders, law enforcement officials, educators, and other stakeholders to take a big-picture approach to the problem. Indeed, how can we not dive headlong into the effort to stop bullying, if, as Attorney General Holder admonished us last year: “Federal prosecutors should see themselves as community problem solvers, not case processors.” Violence begets violence, and violence at school is especially odious as it also prevents children from getting the education they need to live their dreams.
Fortunately, the Justice Department has been actively engaged in identifying the issues and working toward solutions. In Detroit, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has led a series of community meetings focused on preventing bullying. In Minnesota, the Justice Department is investigating allegations of bullying and harassment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students in the Anoka-Hennepin County School District after four students committed suicide there in the past two years. In Oregon, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, working with the Department’s Community Relations Service, convened an educational summit last year with federal, state, and local officials to examine issues of bullying and harassment in Portland schools. The summit focused on training and informing administrators and parents of the legal requirements schools must meet in addressing harassment, bullying, and alleged hate crimes. The summit also addressed how to prevent and respond to hate incidents. Next month in Cleveland, my office will convene a town hall meeting on bullying that will bring together students from marginalized communities, as well as educators and community leaders, for a discussion of symptoms of and solutions to bullying. It will be simulcast to more than 100 schools in Ohio during the school day.
Local school administrators, the Department of Education’s Civil Rights Division, and advocacy groups such as the Anti-Defamation League, the National Council of La Raza, and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, are also important partners and assist U.S. Attorneys in tailoring programs to fit your community. Those of us who spent any time in school – which is to say, all of us – realize that bullying may never be completely eliminated. But we can take steps to reduce its frequency, and help create nurturing communities where students know they are not alone. Those of us who are parents would do anything we could to ease the suffering of our children, whether it is physical or emotional. There is no higher calling to help ease the suffering of our children, and work collectively to stamp out bullying.