17-year old Eric Mohat from Mentor, Ohio had just one weakness - he was shy and reticent, which is perhaps what led to constant harassment from a group of schoolmates who physically abused and labelled him 'gay' 'fag' 'queer' and 'homo.' Mohat endured this as far as he could till one day in 2009 he shot himself. Mohat was certainly not the first to be driven to bullycide. In the furor that followed his death, it came to light that a girl and two other boys in Eric's class had killed themselves in 2007 following similar instances of bullying.
Was Eric Mohat the last victim? Sadly, no. Among a number of such cases, one was that of 15 year old Phoebe Prince - a pretty young girl from Ireland who moved to Massachusetts with her mother. Phoebe hanged herself in January 2010 after being constantly taunted and bullied for several months by at least two separate groups of students at South Hadley High School. Even after her death, the bullies posted crude remarks on her Facebook memorial page. The case received strong public attention at the time and led to Massachusetts state lawmakers passing anti-bullying legislation, which was signed into law on May 3, 2010.
For years, bullying has been considered an essential rite of passage to adulthood but a spate of tragic suicides among teens (such as the above) has led the U.S. president Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama to launch an aggressive campaign to prevent bullying over sexual orientation, racial and ethnic differences, or other issues. The Obamas hosted the first ever White House Conference on Bullying Prevention which saw approximately 150 students, parents, teachers, non-profit leaders, advocates, and policymakers coming together to discuss ways in which schools and communities could be made safe for all students.
In a clear message, President Obama said, If there's one goal of this conference, it's to dispel the myth that bullying is just a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up. It's not...Bullying can have destructive consequences for our young people. And it's not something we have to accept. In his speech, the president highlighted findings that a third of middle school and high school students reported being bullied during the school year. Almost 3 million students said they were pushed, shoved, tripped, even spit on.
Earlier this month, announcing the conference, Melody Barnes, White House domestic policy adviser had told Washington Blade that the issue was very, very near to the president and the first lady's heart.
This was made evident one more time by Michelle Obama's impassioned opening remarks at the Conference: As parents, we know we need to make a real effort to be engaged in our children's lives, to listen to them and be there for them when they need us...And when something is wrong, we need to speak up, and we need to take action. She also pointed out that it is not just parents, but everyone - from teachers, coaches, faith leaders, elected officials, and anyone who's involved in the children's lives - who have a role to play in preventing bullying or taking remedial action.
Judging by responses, the issue has struck a chord with many. Among the high profile supporters of the campaign is social media giant Facebook with its two anti-bullying safety features that are meant to reduce the instances of bullying and also flag off instances of such behavior. One is a special reporting tool that makes it possible to not only report offensive content to the site, but also lets victims report that material to someone in their support system (like a parent or teacher) who may be able to address the issue more directly. Thus a user could identify a photo, status update or other item as bullying them and then report it to someone in their friend network about it.
Facebook also plans to roll out an improved Safety Center that will provide educational videos, articles and other content created by bullying experts to help adults address the problem.
Popular youth television channel MTV too has announced the launch of a new anti-digital discrimination coalition, which will work with the channel to fight bullying and intolerance online. MTV is set to announce the forthcoming premiere of a poignant new feature film on the tragic case of Abraham Biggs - a 19-year-old who battled bipolar disorder and ultimately webcast his suicide after being egged on by a digital mob. The network will also telecast six new cyber-bullying and digital discrimination public service announcements, encouraging bullying bystanders to support their friends, connect victims of digital abuse to resources, and drive home the serious impact typewritten words can have.
Most recently, pop star Britney Spears has committed to leveraging her celebrity power to boost the first couple's campaign against anti-bullying. The Hold it Against Me star tweeted on Wednesday: 'Anti bullying is an issue very close to my heart. I am honored that President Obama and the First Lady asked me to join this campaign.' She also posted the link of the Facebook video in which Barack and Michelle Obama talk about the shared responsibility for ending bullying.
With celebrity power as above and a host of other academic as well as public-private partnerships, the administration is set to address the menace vigorously and evolve comprehensive ideas, solutions and policies.