White House seeks child-speech oversight

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Roughly 150 various advocates — lobbyists for gays and lesbians, legislators, White House officials, at least one cabinet secretary and the first lady — gathered around President’s Obama’s bully pulpit in the White House Thursday to cheer for increased government monitoring and intervention in Facebook conversations, in playgrounds and in schoolrooms around the country.

No officials at the televised East Room roll-out of the White House’s anti-bullying initiative suggested any limits to government intervention against juvenile physical violence, social exclusion or unwanted speech. None mentioned the usefulness to children of unsupervised play. None suggested there were any risks created by a government program to enforce children’s approval of other children who are unpopular, overweight, or who declare themselves to be gay, lesbians or transgender.

“It breaks our hearts to think that any child feels afraid every day in the classroom, on the playground, or even online,” first lady Michelle Obama said.

“We’re going to prevent bullying and create an environment where every single one of our children can thrive,” the president said, as he announced a series of government actions intended to fund, guide and pressure state and local officials to adopt regulations and programs that would shield children from insults or social-exclusion as well as from physical harm.

But the lethal risks of additional federal school-yard regulation will be underlined May 2 in a California courtroom. Brandon McInerney was 19 days past his 14th birthday, and living with his divorced father, when he murdered Larry King, by shooting him dead in a classroom, said McInerney’s lawyer, Scott Wippert.

In the pending trial, “the evidence we will introduce is that [King] was bullying and sexually-harassing” McInerney, with the tacit approval of school officials who excused the harassment as legitimate expression of a female “gender identity,” Wippert said. The approved sexual-harassment took place on the schoolyard, in front of other kids, and it included offers of sexual favors and precipitated taunts from other boys. “It was outrageous,” said Wippert. When school officials refused to discipline King, McInerney shot him in front of a teacher who had given him the dress he was wearing, he said.

If the situation turned out differently and McInerney had killed himself, the “focus would have been on the school [officials] for allowing the [sexually themed] bullying,” Wippert argued. But that’s not what happened, and the local district attorney is now trying McInerney as an adult and charging him with first-degree murder for shooting and killing King, which could put him away for the rest of his life, Wippert said.

Gay advocacy groups, principally the New York-based Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, argue that kids who may be gay or lesbian need protection from taunts and insults, as well as from already-illegal violence, and that schools should promote acceptance of homosexuality. “GLSEN envisions a world in which every child learns to respect and accept all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression [and it] seeks to develop school climates where difference is valued for the positive contribution it makes to creating a more vibrant and diverse community,” according to a statement from GLSEN, whose founder, Kevin Jennings, now heads the anti-bullying program at the Department of Education.

GLSEN and Jennings are anathema to D.C.-based Family Research Council, which argues that children, parents, local governments and clerics are best able to counter episodes of bullying. “Bullying violates the Christian’s obligation to love our neighbor as we love ourselves [but] some homosexual activists are using this issue as a way to silence legitimate and respectful moral disagreement with homosexual conduct,” according to a statement from the Family Research Council. “Using the bureaucratic machinery of the federal government to promote homosexuality in the schools is precisely what Family Research Council and many others warned about when GLSEN founder Kevin Jennings was appointed to the Department of Education,” continued the statement.

Congressional opposition from social-conservatives and libertarians will likely bottle up several GLSEN-backed bills pending in Congress. To promote their cases, both factions showcase speakers, as well as dead children, including those who committed suicide after bullying, or after expulsion from school for minor offenses.

But federal officials can push the initiative forward with many other tools, including agency employees, federal grants to advocacy groups, agency regulations, cooperation from companies such as Facebook, and the White House’s bully pulpit. In the next few weeks, Facebook is set to announce new steps that could allow kids to highlight online conversations and insults for subsequent inspection by adults, school officials and regulators.

This expanded adult oversight of juvenile interactions was welcomed by invited speakers at the White House event.

A “greater effort to monitor [kids’ interactions] is a good thing,” said George Sugai, at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education in 2005. “We have to encourage the children not to fight back” against insults and online harassment, but instead to call for help from adults, said Catherine Bradshaw, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence.

Joel Burns, councilman in a Fort Worth, Texas, applauded the president’s focus on kids who say they are gay or lesbian. “The president did not shy away from LGBT as a topic,” he said. Also, the president endorsed “enumeration,” which is especially important, he said. Enumeration is the specific inclusion of gay, lesbian and transgender categories as deserving of regulatory protection.

GLSEN’s spokesman Ryan Schwarz declined to comment about the initiative, saying “the sensitivities abut lobbying on this issue are deep.” However, he added, White House officials “have been really great on taking full leadership.”

The White House’s East Room meeting did not include any children who spoke out for or against federal oversight. Two grade-school kids who attended, however, were Ryan Thompson and Eric Kanchuger, who have established Channel 6 News. Federal policies intended to help parents tracks their kids’ Facebook conversations is “a bit too much,” said Kanchuger. “It would intrude on our privacy.”

It appears that at least one of the president’s daughters may agree with this criticism. “Barack and I also know that sometimes, maybe even a lot of the time, it’s really hard for parents to know what’s going on in our kids’ lives,” the first lady told the East Room audience. “We don’t always know, because they don’t always tell us every little detail.  We know that from Sasha.  Sasha’s response [to our question] ‘What happened at school today?’ [is] ‘Nothing.’ That’s it.”