- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Obama administration is giving new meaning to “bully pulpit” by hosting a conference aimed at encouraging children to be nice to one another.

“For a long time, bullying was treated as an unavoidable part of growing up,” President Obama said in a video with first lady Michelle Obama on the Facebook site StopBullying.gov in advance of Thursday’s White House Conference on Bullying Prevention.

“But more and more, we’re seeing how harmful it can be for our kids, especially when it follows them from their school to their phone to their computer screen,” Mr. Obama said. He urged all Americans to join the growing campaign to make sure that all children can thrive.

The daylong conference, which is drawing students, educators, anti-violence advocates, academics and Obama administration officials, has widespread support. Figures from 2008 show that 25 percent of public schools reported bullying among students on a daily or weekly basis.

Bullying refers to verbal put-downs, rumormongering, ostracizing, destroying personal property, or threatening or assaulting someone. “Cyberbullying” refers to these actions online or via mobile technology.

Some observers are worried that the Obama administration has additional agendas, such as turning school-based misbehavior into a federal crime or portraying the bullying of gay, bisexual and transgender youths as more urgent a problem than the bullying of other children.

“As Christians, we believe that no person should be subject to harassment or violence because of their sexuality, religious beliefs or any other reason,” said Family Research Council President Tony Perkins. “However, we are concerned that some homosexual activists are using this issue as a way to silence legitimate and respectful moral disagreement with homosexual conduct.”

“It is increasingly evident that ‘bullying,’ while one of many legitimate school safety issues, is also a political code word for advancing the political agenda of gay rights special interests,” said Kenneth Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland.

In addition, he said, the Education Department is telling schools that they should start investigating bullying cases for potential violations of civil rights, a federal offense. This is “a radical shift” in policy, as it overrides disciplinary policies and leadership from principals and local school officials, Mr. Trump said.

The impetus for the White House conference appears to be a spate of suicides last fall of youths who were bullied, teased or harassed. One of the victims of those tragedies was Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, who jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge after he was secretly recorded with a webcam having sex with a male student, and saw that the video was posted online.

Mr. Obama, Vice President Joseph R. Biden and other administration officials quickly made videos in an attempt to comfort and encourage gay youths as part of the “It Gets Better Project.”

Thursday’s conference will focus on all kinds of bullying: Minnesota anti-bullying advocate Lynn Miland is expected to attend with her daughters Kelly and Maggie. Kelly, who has autism, was teased and physically bullied in school; Maggie started an anti-bullying campaign in school in defense of her sister and other victims.

A White House conference against bullying is a “terrific” idea, said Linda Spears of the Child Welfare League of America, who noted that foster children and disabled children are frequent targets of bullies. These children’s lives are “already fragile,” and then they get targeted because “they’re the ones without designer sneakers,” she said.

Obese children are also favorite victims of bullies: A 2010 Pediatrics study said that, regardless of sex, race, income or other characteristics, obese children have 1.6 times the risk of being bullied than more slender children.

Gay-rights groups are eager to prevent the bullying of youths who are gay or appear to be gay in light of recent tragedies. The Washington Blade reported that a Massachusetts woman whose 11-year-old son hanged himself after anti-gay taunts will attend the conference, as will leaders of the Trevor Project, a crisis management group for gay youths.

But this effort raises concerns about muzzling people who do not endorse bullying, but, in good faith, do not endorse homosexual behavior either.

“Traditional morality is not responsible for harassing speech,” said Mission America founder Linda Harvey, who is participating in a conference next month on “hate speech” against Christians.

“Bullies act for a variety of reasons, and schools need to punish the behaviors, not become the thought police,” said Ms. Harvey.

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