WASHINGTON — Casey Story told her teachers at Garner High School that she'd have to be absent today. She'll be in Washington, at the White House, talking with President Barack Obama about how to stop bullying in the nation's schools.
Story, 18, can't recall ever being a victim herself of bullying. But she's seen it in the hallways - how teenagers make fun of others passing them by. She knows it happens in the cyber world, when a kid trying to escape the horrors of school goes home only to find his or her name plastered on Facebook or Twitter.
"It's an issue at every school and causes a lot of harm to people, and causes people to not come to school," Story said in a phone interview Wednesday.
"I say, 'Leave them alone,'" she said. "I give them a look and keep walking."
As the nation focuses on the crisis in Libya, soaring gas prices at home and a looming budget showdown with Congress, Obama today will turn his attention to those bullies.
He and first lady Michelle Obama will bring parents, teachers and experts to the White House for a series of talks and seminars on how to stop bullying and how to help victims survive it.
Critics say it's a poor use of the president's time and energy at a time of pressing, even urgent, needs elsewhere, and question whether the federal government need get involved. But Obama believes he alone can turn a pressing local problem into a national priority. And parents of children who've killed themselves, who want Congress to enact a national law ordering schools to adopt anti-bullying policies, agree.
"This isn't an issue that makes headlines every day, but it affects every single young person in our country," Obama says in a video released by the White House on Wednesday.
"It's something we care about not only as president and first lady but also as parents," adds Michelle Obama.
Hope for improvement
And those on the front lines, such as Story, say the president's attention can help. Story is the national Youth Advisory Board chairwoman of SAVE, Students Against Violence Everywhere. She's been involved in the group since middle school but said that in the past year, the nation's awareness of bullying has grown.
"Hopefully now that people are seeing that's it's an issue, and even the president is getting involved, hopefully in five years it won't be as much of a problem," said Story, who will attend today's conference.
Sirdeaner Walker, whose 11-year-old son killed himself in Massachusetts two years ago after enduring constant anti-gay slurs, said she welcomed Obama's involvement.
"It's important for the president to weigh in on this because this is a national health crisis facing our children," said Walker, who will attend the White House conference.
"We've always looked to the federal government for leadership in civil rights, and we need to look to the federal government now."
She said a top goal is getting Congress to pass the proposed Safe Schools Improvement Act, which would require schools receiving federal money to prohibit bullying and harassment, including on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation.
The issue grabbed attention in recent months with news of several young people committing suicide after being bullied, particularly for being gay.
An 18-year-old college student in New Jersey killed himself last September after someone taped him having sex with a man and posted the video on the Internet. Indeed, the explosive growth of social networking online has allowed bullies to taunt people even more, often anonymously and with far greater reach.
Bullying because of perceived sexual orientation is a problem, said Story, the Garner student. "That's definitely a thing people do," she said.
North Carolina has an anti-bullying statute, passed in 2009, and requires anti-bullying policies in schools.
Cause and solution
Story said she hopes to learn more today about the proposed federal legislation. Her school has a zero-tolerance policy, though she said students often don't report problems when they occur.
"Students are the cause of the bullying. They need to be the solution to the bullying," Story said.
Still, despite the compelling nature of the problem, it is not on the nation's priority list for the federal government, according to polls. Americans rank the economy and jobs by far their top national priority, followed by such issues as the federal budget and debt, health care, and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"Although we have not polled on the issue of bullying, one suspects it's not very high on the list of priorities Americans have for the president," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Polling Institute at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.
Is it a federal issue?
Conservatives say the entire issue is better left to schools, local communities and states.
"I guess it's important to put out a statement. But bullying is a state and local issue," said Brian Darling, director of government studies at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
"It clearly isn't a good use of time," Darling added. "There are big issues out there. It seems like the president's distracted from the important work at hand, like working on a resolution to keep the government funded through the rest of the year."
Larry Gerson, a political scientist at San Jose State University in California, said it makes sense for Obama to spend time on bullying, given his broader goal of promoting civility in politics and public life. And he said a president can, and should, be able to manage several major challenges at the same time.
"I would find it hard to believe he's taking the problems of Libya, the recession and the budget deadlock off the table and replacing them with a meeting on bullying," Gerson said. "I don't think it's one or the other. A president, much like a CEO, must balance a number of activities through the course of a day."
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