For years in this country, the problem of bullying has been shrouded in misunderstanding and treated as a rite of passage for youth. But bullying is not harmless. No student should feel unsafe in school, and no student should feel as if they have no place to turn for help. Everyone in education should begin with the premise that it is morally wrong when students fear for their safety or face bullying for any reason, including discrimination based on their race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability.
Iowa has become a center for discussions about bullying prevention, in no small part because leaders of the Sioux City Community School District opened their doors to the makers of the documentary film “Bully.” The film lays bare the heartbreaking torment that some students undergo daily and it shows school administrators and staff struggling to respond effectively.
Bullying is a pervasive problem in our schools and we recognize the courage it took for Sioux City’s educators to openly address this issue. Bullying can have serious consequences for everyone in a school’s community, affecting not only the youth who are bullied, those who witness bullying, those responsible for creating a positive atmosphere where bullying is not tolerated, and even those who bully.
Traditionally, too few have been willing to share their experiences with bullying. We applaud the students, families, district teaching staff and administrators for giving director Lee Hirsch and the producers of "Bully" full access. This has allowed audiences across the country to see and better understand the reality of bullying in our schools and the critical need to help students, parents and educators prevent bullying and to respond constructively when it does happen. By sharing their stories, these students and school personnel are helping us to grasp the problem’s scope, and pinpoint the tools and resources needed to combat this issue.
This newspaper has highlighted the urgent need to prevent and address bullying. Efforts like the Sioux City Journal’s are important steps toward creating safer schools where all students can succeed.
To address these challenges it is important to focus not only on reducing bullying, but also on the strong and important work Iowa educators are doing to improve conditions for learning. Iowa is working to become a leader and a model for other states working to prevent bullying.
As one of 11 states awarded a “Safe and Supportive Schools” grant from the U.S. Department of Education in 2010, Iowa is developing ways to assess school climate and to intervene in areas of need. Selected schools across Iowa, including some in Sioux City, are involved in the early stages of this initiative and already are seeing positive results from their efforts.
As part of this initiative, the Iowa Department of Education is working with non-profit partners in a safe school certification process to ensure schools are following best practices in preventing and responding to bullying. In addition, using a free, comprehensive tool developed by the U.S. Department of Education’s Safe and Supportive Schools Technical Assistance Center, the Iowa Department of Education has committed to ensuring all of its school bus drivers are trained to effectively address bullying. And today, the Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, chaired by one of us, Tom Harkin, will hold a hearing in Des Moines, where Russlynn Ali, U.S. Department of Education assistant secretary for civil rights, will testify on the issue of bullying.
Both of us know through long experiences working in and with schools that keeping students safe is one of the toughest and most important challenges faced by any school district. We see school safety as both a moral and a practical issue.
Everyone responsible for the education of students should begin with the understanding it is morally wrong when students fear for their safety or suffer discrimination and taunts because of their race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability or a host of other reasons.
The practical side of school safety is just as critical. A school where children don't feel safe is a place where teachers struggle to teach and children struggle to learn. It is a school where kids are more likely to tune out, drop out or get depressed. Bullying interferes with a student’s ability to succeed, immediately and often over the long term.
Ending bullying won’t happen overnight. Still, it is up to all of us to step up to the challenges involved and highlight the progress being made. We all have a role to play in stopping bullying. We can do so by supporting legislation such as the Student Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act and by sharing the many resources available to help, including those found on StopBullying.gov, the federal government’s site for bullying prevention. If we all pitch in, emulating Iowa’s brave example, we can eliminate the culture of bullying in America’s schools.
Democrat Tom Harkin represents Iowa in the United States Senate. Arne Duncan is U.S. Department of Education secretary.