While state legislatures are responding to school bullying with punitive disciplinary and criminal laws, a coalition of education and human-rights groups came out Wednesday with a call for a preventive, educational response.
At a press conference in Washington, D.C., the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights announced the launch of Project SEATBELT, aimed at preventing bullying. The initiative is supported by a group of educators and activists including Kerry Kennedy, U.S. Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) and filmmaker Lee Hirsch. They were joined at Wednesday’s announcement by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, National Education Association President Dan Iannuzzi and Project SEATBELT Manager Deborah Temkin.
“All of the ‘-isms’—racism, sexism—have a common denominator, and that’s bullying,” Honda said. “We have been taught something [bullying] that we want to change, and awareness is important for that.”
First Amendment advocates have questioned the heavy emphasis on punishment, including in some states criminal charges, as a response to uncivil online speech. The RFK Center’s awareness campaign emphasizes prevention, and its website includes tips for the news media about covering bullying stories responsibly.
The project’s name (a nod to its corporate sponsor, Chrysler) is an acronym for Safe Environments Achieved Through Bullying Prevention, Engagement, Leadership & Teaching Respect. During a kickoff at the National Press Club, Tenkin said the idea grew from a conversation she had at a bullying summit with Kevin Jacobsen, whose son Kameron committed suicide as a result of bullying.
“[Jacobsen] spoke about how wearing a seat belt is automatic for kids but not for adults,” Temkin said. “We have to make bullying prevention the ‘seat belt philosophy’ of this generation.”
The announcement included the screening of a new commercial in Chrysler’s national anti-bullying advertising campaign. The group also watched excerpts from “Bully,” Hirsch’s 2011 documentary that has been screened by more than 1.8 million students.
“This is not going to work if it’s a silo,” Kennedy said. “We need all communities—students, parents, teachers, administrators—working together.”