Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover was a sixth-grader in the Springfield (Mass. ) Schools in the 2008-09 school year. School was an awful place for Carl, a place where he was relentlessly bullied as “gay” by his peers because he was a good student who dressed neatly and didn’t fit the gender stereotype assigned to him as an African-American male. On April 6, 2009, Carl decided he couldn’t take it any more and hung himself.
Carl was 11 years old when he decided he’d rather die than go back to school.
On March 10, 2011, I sat in the Blue Room of the White House and watched Carl’s mom, Sirdenear Walker, tell her son’s story to President and Mrs. Obama right before the start of the first-ever White House Conference on Bullying. The moment I will never forget was when Mrs. Walker pulled out her son’s 8-by-11 school photo and handed it to Mrs. Obama. Looking both stricken and moved, the First Lady grasped the picture, looked at it intently, and then wrapped Mrs. Walker in a tight embrace. At that moment, I thought that perhaps something good could come out of Mrs. Walker’s loss, that perhaps her son did not die in vain, that perhaps Mrs. Walker’s courage in speaking out about the greatest nightmare that could befall any mother might help bring us to a tipping point where bullying becomes simply unacceptable in America’s schools.
If that happens, I believe March 10, 2011, will go down in history as the date when the tide turned.
By convening the first-ever White House Conference on Bullying and hosting it personally in the East Room of the White House, the President and the First Lady made the strongest statement possible that they believe the moment for bullying to end has arrived and that they are putting themselves and our entire administration on the front lines of this fight. From the first remarks made by President and Mrs. Obama through the closing remarks by Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, anti-LGBT bullying was specifically and frequently called out as unacceptable. As someone who spent more than two decades fighting this battle before I joined this administration, I watched in awe as the combined leadership of the Obama presidency sent a clear and unequivocal message: We can’t wait for it to get better for LGBT kids — we need to make it better right now.
This high-profile event was not a one-shot deal for the Obama administration. Our work against bullying began in 2009, when a six-agency Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention work group was convened to tackle this problem. The partners staged the first-ever federal Bullying Summit in August 2010, long before the national media frenzy that accompanied the tragic suicides of young people like Tyler Clementi in the fall of 2010. The work group continues its efforts today, unveiling a new website —stopbullying.gov — on March 10 to provide a one-stop shop for those looking for resources to fight all forms of bullying, including anti-LGBT bullying. The Department of Education also announced its intention to set up a special technical assistance center dedicated to bullying prevention. This will be followed by the department’s national summits on Gender-Based Violence Among Young People (including violence against transgender youth) in April, a first-ever federal Summit on LGBT Youth in June and a second-annual federal Bullying Summit in September. In other words, the Obama Administration is in this for the long haul.
Every day I wear on my suit a button with Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover’s school picture on it and the dates of his far-too-short life. It reminds me of why I came to Washington, D.C., in the first place, which was to do my part to make sure these kinds of tragedies come to an end. Sitting in the Blue Room watching Mrs. Walker tell Carl’s story to the President and First Lady last Thursday, I began to believe that — with this president’s leadership — that day might be coming very soon.
Kevin Jennings is the Assistant Deputy Secretary for the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools.