The bullying epidemic: What’s next

In 2012, more than 13 million children will be teased, taunted and physically assaulted by their peers, making bullying the most common form of violence our nation’s youth experience this year. Each day, 160,000 children miss school due to fear of physical and psychological attacks on the basis of their skin color, ethnicity, physical or mental abilities, sexual orientation, gender identity or religion. These statistics amount to more than just numbers — they are an urgent call to action for students and educators everywhere.

As a result, during the recent ratings controversy surrounding director Lee Hirsch’s documentary “Bully,” I was compelled to help make the film accessible to those who need to see it most: our youths. Thirty-five fellow members of Congress joined me on a letter to the Motion Picture Association of America requesting a ratings change from R to PG-13 for the film. I was also honored to speak on the issue at the film’s Los Angeles premiere with Mr. Hirsch.

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Then, on April 5, the MPAA made the unprecedented move to change “Bully’s” rating to PG. Now young people have the chance to be educated and moved by the documentary’s powerful messages of inclusion overcoming intolerance, of understanding preventing violence. The debate over the documentary’s rating has also re-invigorated a crucial conversation among teachers and students, parents and administrators, advocates and thought leaders. Now, it’s up to all of us to take the conversation to a new level, to stand together to craft solutions that stop bullying in communities everywhere — both online and offline.

As an educator of more than 30 years and a member of Congress who was bullied as a child, I am inspired to do my part. That’s why I founded the Congressional Anti-Bullying Caucus. The caucus will provide a premier forum to develop legislative solutions to prevent bullying and help raise public awareness.

Changes in our laws, the way we think, and ultimately our behavioral and cultural norms are difficult to create, yet that is the challenge ahead of us. We need new and innovative solutions to combat bullying, solutions that protect young people by empowering leaders in schools everywhere to create safe campus environments for each child. We must better equip educators — not only teachers, but all professionals who have a role in caring for our youths — with the funding and training they need to keep each child safe and secure.

One of the most startling scenes in “Bully” is the verbal and physical abuse that a brave young man named Alex endured on a bus ride to school. According to the National Association for Pupil Transportation, 26 million young people are shuttled by yellow school buses twice a day, every day. These rolling classrooms carry more students than a usual classroom and house a lone bus driver focused on maneuvering a 10-ton vehicle. Too often these drivers are not trained or empowered to safeguard the children in their care. They must have the tools they need to manage the critical situations they often deal with on a daily basis.

On the health side, our public schools are mandated to have a ratio of one nurse per 750 students, yet only 13 of our states are abiding. School infirmaries must be properly staffed and each medical staff member must be properly trained to identify and treat the emotional trauma of bullying — social anxiety, substance abuse and a sudden drop in academic performance.

A painful lesson of the film “Bully” is the fact that administrators and teachers are sometimes woefully unprepared to deal with bullying in their schools. These educators play key roles in managing the front lines of bullying, whether through coping with situations of physical and emotional violence, fielding complaints from students and parents and fostering an environment of tolerance and inclusivity in their classrooms and playgrounds. These educators must be equipped with the training and tools they need to break existing cycles of bullying and to prevent countless more before they even start.

The American Dream is first ignited in the classroom, and bullying is a clear and present danger to our nation’s safety, spirit and competitiveness. Each educator and campus leader has a key role to play in the national mission to create a safe environment for each child. Going forward, the Anti-Bullying Caucus in Congress hopes to craft new, innovative solutions to create, manage and maintain school environments where our children can learn, grow and thrive as individuals fully empowered to reach their highest potential.

Honda serves on the House Budget and Appropriations committees.