Seth Walsh, a 13-year-old from a small city in central California, loved french fries and Pokemon cards. Tyler Clementi was 18, a college freshman who played violin in the Rutgers Symphony Orchestra. Asher Brown was a 13-year-old straight-A student in Houston. Billy Lucas was a 15-year-old from Indiana who showed horses. Justin Aaberg from Minnesota was 15 too and posted his cello music on YouTube.
What did these young people have in common? They all died recently by suicide after being harassed because they were gay or believed to be gay.
Millions of young people will wake up in America today knowing they’ll be bullied before the day is over. For many, the harassment will focus on their race, a physical or intellectual disability, their performance at school or another characteristic that sets them apart.
We know that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students are among the most likely to be targeted. Four out of five gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender middle-schoolers say they are regularly harassed because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. Three-quarters of high-schoolers say they “frequently” or “often” hear derogatory and homophobic remarks.
As these attacks add up, they can become an unbearable burden for young people. Bullied teens are more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol. They’re more likely to skip school. They’re more likely to be depressed. The result is that gay, lesbian and bisexual teens are up to seven times more likely to have reported attempting suicide than their peers.
We cannot continue to stand by while our children are subjected to this physical and emotional violence. Protecting young people from bullying is just as essential to their healthy development as making sure they have good teachers and access to health care.
Over the years, we’ve heard excuse after excuse for why this harassment continues. One argument is that bullying often happens out of sight — in locker rooms, deserted hallways and social-media websites. But we know that 85 percent of bullying happens in front of witnesses, including adults.
Others operate under the sad belief that bullying is just another part of growing up, that it “toughens kids up.” The events of these last few months should put this outrageous theory to rest.
Still others say some kids are just mean and there’s nothing we can do about it. But this excuse ignores the effective strategies we’ve developed for reducing bullying. For example, in schools that have an anti-harassment policy that specifically addresses sexual orientation or gender identity, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students are 50 percent more likely to feel safe in school and one-third less likely to skip a class.
Even more promising are approaches that get entire communities involved. When principals, teachers, school nurses, pediatricians, social workers, faith leaders, law enforcement agents, parents and youth all have the information they need to recognize bullying and respond to it, bullies get a clear message that their behavior is unacceptable.
That’s why last year, the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services joined forces with four other departments to create a federal task force on bullying. In August, the task force staged the first-ever National Bullying Summit, bringing together 150 top state, local, civic and corporate leaders to begin mapping out a national plan to end bullying. And we launched a new website, www.bullyinginfo.org, which brings all the federal resources on bullying together in one place for the first time ever.
We’re also getting students involved. The Stop Bullying Now! Campaign has 80 partners across the country that help reach youth with an anti-bullying message everywhere from elementary and middle schools to Boys and Girls Clubs to public libraries to 4-H clubs.
And earlier this week, the Department of Education’s new Safe and Supportive Schools program announced grants to 11 states to help them use student, family and staff surveys to create “school safety scores” for schools in their states. Additional funds will be available for the schools with the biggest safety concerns.
We’re launching a similar effort to mobilize communities to prevent suicides. Last month, the Department of Health and Human Services helped announce an unprecedented National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention, which brings together a wide range of public and private partners to coordinate anti-suicide efforts. One of its specific goals is preventing suicide in at-risk groups, including gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth.
Building safe neighborhoods and schools where young people can thrive is a job for all of us, not just government or schools or parents. It means speaking up the next time you hear someone use a homophobic slur, stepping in when you encounter a bully in action, and letting your local school board know that bullying isn’t just part of growing up — it’s a serious danger to our children.
The events of the last few weeks have filled many of us with sadness and anger. They should also fill us with determination to do everything we can to stand up for Seth, Tyler, Asher, Billy, Justin and millions of other young people who can’t do it for themselves.
Kathleen Sebelius is the Secretary of Health and Human Services, and Arne Duncan is the Secretary of Education.