WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama smiled when he said his large ears and funny name once made him a target of school-yard harassment. But he was all seriousness Thursday when he told a White House conference on bullying that torment and intimidation must not be tolerated.
Some 13 million students, about a third of all those attending school, are bullied every year, the White House said. Experts say that puts them at greater risk of falling behind in their studies, abusing drugs or alcohol, or suffering mental or other health problems. Kids who are seen as different because of their race, clothes, disability or sexual orientation are more likely to be bullied.
"If there's one goal of this conference," Obama said, "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." He spoke to more than 100 parents, students, teachers and others gathered to discuss the problem and share ideas for solutions.
"Bullying can have destructive consequences for our young people. And it's not something we have to accept," he said.
The issue has been getting more attention partly because texting, Facebook, Twitter and other technologies are being used to carry it out — it's called cyberbullying — and because of media coverage of teens who have killed themselves after such taunting.
Families of some of those youngsters joined Obama at the White House, including Tina Meier, of suburban St. Louis. Meier's 13-year-old daughter, Megan, hanged herself in 2006 after falling victim to an Internet hoax carried out, in part, by an adult neighbor who posed as a boy. The neighbor, a woman, was later convicted of a federal misdemeanor in a landmark cyberbullying trial.
"No family should have to go through what these families have gone through," Obama said. "No child should feel that alone."
Meier had a message for parents who want to take away their children's computers and other electronic devices to spare them from bullying: It won't work. She urged them instead to get a better understanding of what their kids are doing.
"Technology is out there. We cannot shut it off. Children are not going to allow it to be shut off," Meier told participants. "We have to make sure that we have parents who understand what's going on in their child's online world, as well as the real world."
Speaking as a parent and as a victim, Obama urged everyone to help end bullying by working to create an atmosphere at school where children feel safe and feel like they belong. He said that even he felt out of place growing up.
"I have to say, with big ears and the name that I have, I wasn't immune," said Obama, who moved around a lot as a boy, being born in Hawaii and growing up there and in Indonesia. "I didn't emerge unscathed," he said.
Obama said adults have too often turned a blind eye to the problem by chalking up the harassment to kids being kids. But he said a national attitude adjustment is in order because of the damage that bullying can do.
A White House conference doesn't immediately solve any problem. But what it does do, particularly by involving the president, is tell the country that an issue is, in fact, a problem that requires a national response.
In the case of bullying, the conference also gave Obama another chance to press his education agenda. He has tried to make bullying a part of that by warning that failure to address the behavior puts the U.S. at risk of falling behind other countries academically.
Before breaking into smaller groups, conference participants heard from experts who study bullying. Discussions in the breakout sessions touched on anti-bullying efforts in schools, communities and on campuses, as well as on cyberbullying. Two other sessions were conducted online, including one with Sebelius answering questions.
Michelle Obama said parents need to be more involved in their children's lives, their schools and their activities since youngsters "don't always tell us every little detail." She said her youngest daughter, 9-year-old Sasha, often says "Nothing" in response to questions about her day at school.
The first lady, who introduced the president, also urged adults to set an example by treating others with compassion and respect, and giving each other the benefit of the doubt. "It sends a message to our kids about how they treat others," she said.
Associated Press writer Stacy Anderson contributed to this report.
I was bullied by 3 girls in the elementary school. To this day the only reason I can figure is because I was disabled.
In 1983 I took swimming lessons at the YWCA and made friends with a girl I went to school with and her aunt and mother. We had the best time taking lessons together. She didn't care that my eyes were stills crossed at this time and I had balance problems. We were kids and we were having fun. She did not judge me. I'm going to call her AM.
We took the lessons over the summer and had a great time . I never heard of any other friends in the mix. We called each other just like 2 little friends did at that age.
We were so excited to find out we were going to be in the same class that year together. We had planned so much. But I did not realize she was in a different clique of friends and they were not going to accept me with my left eye turned in toward my nose.
The first day at lunch is when I first got a understanding of how they were going to be to me. AG ask me to sit down. I had then DF came and I was always a very shy and quiet girl(I'm not now) said "Monica scoot down so I can sit with AG". Then TB came and DF had me move again and again.
I was in tears by then a really sweet girl Denise King always took care of me told me to come sit with my real friends. I could not eat for crying that day.
The next day AG ask me again. I told her I just didn't think there was room. But she said she would make room. But she didn't. I don't remember what happened but it was ugly.
Then some how they all three started harassing me. It was constant. It was that experience that made me start hiding the fact I had ever been sick.
I was lucky I had surgery to fix my eyes. My balance is barely noticeable. If I did not tell you ... you would not know. I have chosen to tell people because of the hurt they put me through.
I want to educate people about conditions...about disabilities. I have not kept up with these people but I often wonder if they ever dealt with illness and thought back about how they treated me.
AG the girl I took the swimming lessons with her daddy was in a wheel chair. I often thought his illness was why she understood at first.
As keep thinking back I remember them not letting me play on the ply ground for all the mean talk. But it did not stop there. They would call and call with hang up phone calls. Then try to start arguments with me and just on and on.
I can remember thoughts of just wanting it to end! Then I would say to my self I don't want to die.... just this!I just want this to end! I could not understand why someone would want to be so mean. Just because I wanted to be AMs friend.
It scares me today if they had facebook, myspace, cellphones and computers. I don't understand the world. It just keep getting meaner. I hope I'm helping.
If I can help just one person to not go through what I have I feel like I have done what I was suppose to.