WASHINGTON – Maryland’s first lady Katie O’Malley joined President Obama and the nation’s first lady to discuss concerns about pervasive bullying in American schools at the inaugural White House Conference on Bullying Prevention.
President Obama welcomed Maryland District Court Judge O’Malley by name in his opening remarks Thursday. About 150 people participated in the conference including members of Congress and the administration as well as teachers, students and families of bullying victims.
Participants discussed causes of bullying and preventative measures schools and families can take to ensure a safer educational climate.
Obama said bullying has “destructive consequences” for America’s youth and applauded efforts to address the problem by organizations like the Parent Teacher Association.
The president said he was picked on at school when he was younger. “And I have to say, with big ears and the name that I have, I wasn’t immune,” he said. “I didn’t emerge unscathed.”
Even though some perceive teasing or being picked on as a rite of passage, it does not need to be, O’Malley said.
As the mother of four children — two girls in college and two boys at home — she understands the complex issues around bullying and the new challenges created by technology.
“It used to be when you were getting bullied at school, you would go home and it would stop,” she said. “But with cyberbullying, it’s a 24/7 situation because kids have cell phones. They’re on Facebook. It’s something that can be very pervasive in their worlds.”
Jason Patchin, co-director of the Cyberbullying Research Center, recommended parents “friend” their children on Facebook so they will know what is happening online.
O’Malley is Facebook friends with her daughters. “I only started getting on Facebook as of this year,” she said. Her daughters said they would not friend her when they were in high school, she said, but have since changed their minds. Her 13-year-old son is also her Facebook friend, she said.
At the conference, Facebook’s chief security officer Joe Sullivan introduced two new features designed to combat cyberbullying.
Individuals will be able to report cyberbullying not just to Facebook, but to others in their support network like teachers or parents. This “social reporting” function is currently available for photos and wall posts. The site plans to extend the feature to its profiles, groups, pages and events soon.
Sullivan said the social reporting function would send a message to the person who posted the offensive material and give him the option to remove it before Facebook does.
Facebook also plans to beef up its Safety Center site to offer “new educational videos, external resources from renowned experts, downloadable materials for people to share and discuss, and more,” according to its website.
Cyberbullying was not the only concern at the conference. O’Malley said gathering data about bullying incidents in Maryland schools can help school systems and state government officials combat the problem.
The Safe School Act of 2005 requires schools to report issues of bullying to the state, she said. One difficulty with analyzing the data is that some regions fully report all incidents and some underreport bullying. O’Malley said plans need to be developed to standardize reporting statewide.
The conference highlighted the administration’s new website,
Stopbullying.gov, which provides resources from various federal government agencies on ways teachers, administrators, parents and teens can prevent and end bullying.
O’Malley said most victims of bullying are not as concerned about the bullies being punished as they are about stopping the behavior. “They just want to have friends. They just want to be included,” she said. “It’s just that simple.”