Obama Advisor Jarrett Enters Fray Over Bullying & Gay Rights

Posted by on October 10, 2010

President Obama’s top advisor, Valerie Jarrett, brought the White House into the political and media frenzy of recent weeks over bullying, anti-bullying laws, teen suicide, and gay rights advocacy.

Jarrett Speaks on Bullying at Human Rights Campaign Dinner

Ms. Jarrett spoke at the annual dinner of the Human Rights Campaign on Saturday evening.  According to the White House Office of Public Engagement’s blog post by the President’s liaison to the gay community, Brian Bond, Ms. Jarrett’s prepared remarks included:

“On behalf of President Obama, I want to make clear that this administration is firmly committed to working with you and other advocates.  For we all have to ensure that we are creating an environment in our schools, our communities, and our country, that is safe for every person, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Under Secretary Duncan’s leadership, the Department of Education is fundamentally changing the way we look at bullying.  And they’re working on how we can do a better job of protecting vulnerable young people. 

That’s why, last year, we created a new federal task force on bullying.  And just this August they held the first National Bullying Summit, bringing in experts and advocates – including folks from HRC and GLSEN – to begin mapping out a plan to tackle this issue.  We are working to replicate proven programs that have helped schools cut down on bullying.  We must disprove the myth that bullying is an unavoidable fact of life for young people. 

The Department of Education has reinvigorated the Office for Civil Rights to help stop harassment in our schools based on race, disability, sex – and bullying of LGBT young people who may not conform to gender norms.

The Department of Health and Human Services has announced an unprecedented National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention.  This alliance brings together a wide range of public and private partners. And it’s going to make sure people have access to help, and to resources when they are in crisis.  One of its specific goals is preventing suicide in at-risk groups, including LGBT youth…

…So when it comes to putting a stop to the bullying and harassment of LGBT youth, we are not going to let up.  We are going to stand with you.  We are going to stand with every single young person in this country who deserves the chance to grow up, learn, have fun, and live their lives without the constant threat of violence, or ridicule.  Because although many turn a blind eye, and think that bullying is a harmless rite of passage – words matter.  Bullying is simply cruel, abusive, and needs to be stopped.  Now.  And the work done on the ground by HRC, GLSEN, P-FLAG, the National Youth Advocacy Coalition, the Matthew Shepard Foundation, the Trevor Project and countless others, are crucial to this fight. “

My Take

Several things are clear from Ms. Jarrett’s remarks:

  1. The politicization of bullying (and therefore school safety) has reached epidemic levels.  The media and special interest advocacy frenzy over bullying has increased the political climate around bullying and school safety to an unprecedented level.  In just a week Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and now President Obama’s White House advisor, Valerie Jarrett, have jumped into an already highly politicized climate around bullying and school safety that includes an intense battle between gay rights and Christian conservative advocates, among others, on anti-bullying laws.
  2. The Obama Administration is reacting to political pressure from gay rights advocates.  Ms. Jarrett’s remarks to a large extent are a promotional list of the Administration’s courting of LGBT and gay rights interests, with a large emphasis on bullying and harassment, and focusing on the schools.  This follows intense pressures from anti-bullying and gay rights advocates over recent weeks for Obama and the Education Department to respond to gay rights interests as written about on multiple occasions in this blog.
  3. The Obama Administration’s actions on bullying increasingly appear at risk of being designed to meet political needs, not necessarily the best practices in school safety.  Bullying has been redefined from a local school issue to a federal civil rights issue with Education and Justice Department civil rights offices proactively investigating school districts. Federal policy and funding proposed by the Administration is heavily skewed toward bullying and school climate surveys, while deemphasizing violence and crime. 

The vast majority of keynote presentations done across the country over the past two years by Obama’s Assistant Deputy Secretary for Safe and Drug Free Schools, Kevin Jennings (founder and former executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network), appear to be exclusively on bullying and school climate, with few if any focusing exclusively on other aspects of school safety such as emergency preparedness planning, violence, drugs, school security, school-based policing, or other issues.  In fact, Mr. Jennings increasingly speaks out against data focused on violence and the violence aspect of safe schools. The skewed focus on bullying and school climte detracts from a comprehensive approach to federal school safety policy and funding.

Ms. Jarrett said it best:  “The Department of Education is fundamentally changing the way we look at bullying.” 

Actually, the Department of Education and the Obama Administration are fundamentally changing the definition of school safety, not just bullying.  And based on my experience of over 25 years in the school safety profession, it is a radical and dangerous shift that is not in the best interests of a comprehensive and balanced approach.

What say you?

Ken Trump

Visit School Security Blog at:  http://www.schoolsecurityblog.com

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