White House bullying project vehicle for progressive agenda, say critics

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Administration officials are organizing a coalition of political advocates to push for federal oversight of schoolrooms to protect teens who say they are insulted or injured by their high school peers, often because the teens describe themselves as gay or lesbian.

The federal effort is depicted by officials and sympathetic media as a campaign against “bullying,” but it pushes far beyond the prevention of physical violence, and seeks federal regulation of kids’ statements, online conversations, social arrangements and social “climate.”

“What we’ve tried to do is provide information and tools for parents and schools to push back” against bullying, President Barrack Obama said Sept. 28 in a White House interview with Spanish-language media.

His appointees, however, describe the project in more ambitious terms.

“This president, this attorney general, this secretary of health and human services, and this secretary of education — this federal government, in short — is going to put every tool in its arsenal to bear on this issue because … we cannot allow it to be a rite of passage,” Tom Perez, Obama’s assistant attorney general for civil rights, told a coalition of parents, gay advocacy groups and government officials at a government-funded summit held Sept. 23.

The summit’s goal, according to the Department of Education, “will work towards engaging private and public organizations committed to providing needed tools and resources to ensure the safety of students.” Speakers at the invitation-only summit included Perez, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius.

Conservatives say that the administration is using the threat of bullying to advance its progressive agenda.

“We all oppose bullying in any shape or form,” said Tom Prichard, president of the Minnesota Family Council, a conservative advocacy group. But progressive advocates are exploiting episodes of bullying to push their diversity ideology, which seeks “to promote the embracing and affirmation of homosexuality and other sexual lifestyles,” he said. These advocates want to fragment the family ideal, which has very successfully entwined sex, adults and child-rearing for more than 2,000 years, he said.

Families and communities — not federal lawyers and supposed experts — are best able to govern the constant teenage jostling for popularity and achievement in schools, Prichard said.

Advocates for gays and lesbians say many teens are harassed, intimidated and disadvantaged in schools, and they highlight suicides by gay and lesbian teenagers who have been harassed, taunted and bullied.

Nearly 44 percent of self-identified gay teenagers, and 40 percent of self-identified teen lesbians — who collectively comprise roughly 2 percent of teenagers — said they had been insulted or assaulted in the previous year, according to a 2010 analysis by Dr. Elise Berlan, an academic at Ohio State University. The same study reported that 26 percent of heterosexual teenagers said they have been bullied in the past year.

Officials say the anti-bullying efforts are designed to protect racial, sexual and religious minorities, but their focus is on teenagers who say they’re gays or lesbians.

That’s partly because there’s been a several well-publicized suicides by teenagers who said they were harassed by their peers, sometimes after they revealing themselves as gays or lesbians via Facebook or Youtube.

The Sept. 23 summit was attended by group of 175 officials and advocates and officials, including representatives from groups that seek rights for gays, such as The Trevor Project and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Several media companies participated in the effort, and both Facebook and CNN’s Anderson Cooper have volunteered to promote campaigns against “bullying.”

The most prominent invitees at the summit were several parents of gay teens who had killed themselves, including Wendy Walsh. Her 13-year old son, Seth, was threatened and taunted after he declared himself gay in sixth grade, and killed himself last September in Tehachapi, California.

Nine month later, the Tehachapi school district signed an agreement with the federal government that commits the officials to establish mandatory retraining for students, staff and administrators; to schedule mandatory meetings with parents; and to track the schools’ “climate.” The 32-page contract largely bars taunts and sexual generalizations, and allows students to hire lawyers or complain to the federal government.

The summit included materials from administration’s website, which defines bullying as punching, name-calling, and “leaving people out on purpose, breaking up friendships.” Cyberbullying is “using the Internet, mobile phones or other digital technologies to harm others,” said the site, which lists only two categories of bullying: “Cyberbullying” and “LGBT bullying.”

Federal laws do not treat people who identify as gays or lesbians as a protected class, but administration officials have interpreted the law’s bar against discrimination of males and females to include “harassment of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals.” Federal officials have also reinterpreted legal rules to say schools can be sued if they fail to prevent student taunts on Facebook and other networks.

In June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention awarded a contract worth up to $1.4 million over five years to an advocacy group to create “safe spaces” in schools for teens who say they are gay or lesbian, and to train 14,500 school officials in 20 districts to suppress perceived bullying. The group — Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network — was founded by Kevin Jennings, who served as director of the Education Department’s school safety section until June. Jennings, a gay man who has said he was bullied in school, was the leading advocate for the administration’s bullying agenda.

The administration’s bullying project “has nothing to do with ‘bullying’ or ‘safe schools’ for all students,” said Ken Trump, a school security consultant based in Cleveland, Ohio. “It is all about incorporating into federal regulations what gay rights and civil rights advocates have been unable to incorporate into federal law: The creation of a new protected civil rights class for LGBT persons, and it is all being done under the guise of ‘bullying’ and ‘school safety’ to avoid political” push-back from worried parents, said Trump.

The better course, according to Peter Sprigg, at the conservative Family Research Council, is to advise all teenagers to postpone any announcement of sexuality until they’re adults.

The issue “should be dealt with by local communities,” said Prichard. If the federal government is trying to get involved, he said, “they have a national agenda they’re trying to impose across the board.”

The public’s wariness of central government was illustrated in Minnesota in 2009 when a broad coalition of parents effectively ended a pro-gay program in Hale elementary school, dubbed “Welcoming Schools,” Prichard said. The program required fifth-graders to depict same-sex couples as families, he said.

This same wariness was shown Sept. 1 when a California jury refused to convict Brandon McInerney, who was 14 when he twice shot 15 year-old, cross-dressing Lawrence King in their classroom. The prosecutor had tried McInerney as an adult, and asked the jury to convict him on manslaughter, murder and “hate crime” charges that would have sent him to jail for between 14 and 50 years.

But the jurors couldn’t agree on a verdict after hearing witnesses say that King identified himself as a transgender teen, dressed in girls’ clothes, propositioned McInerney in school, and that teachers refused to discipline King. The district attorney’s office announced Sept. 2 that it will retry McInerney.

The dispute is roiling the community in Minnesota’s large Anoka-Hennepin County School District, where seven teens — including two who identified as gays and said they were bullied — committed suicide in 2009 and 2010. Conservative groups want to preserve the school district’s sexually-neutral anti-bullying policy. But gay-advocacy groups, headlined by Tammy Aaberg, whose 15 year-old son committed suicide in 2010, say the school’s policy of strict neutrality about sexual-orientation creates a “hostile environment” for gay and lesbian teenagers.

Obama’s assistant attorney general for civil rights has launched a federal investigation of the school district.