Why we must stand up to bullies

“I loved learning at school, but because of these kids, I hated going. That was an experience that no one should ever have.”

That is part of a heartbreaking letter I got from a teenage constituent, Alberto, describing his everyday reality at middle school.

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Alberto’s middle school experience is the unfortunate reality for millions of children across the country. If you don’t think that it’s happening at your child’s school, you might want to consider that six out of 10 American teenagers say they witness bullying in school every day.

It wasn’t so long ago that bullying and harassment were considered to be more of a nuisance. When I was in middle school and high school, I heard the justifications that “bullying is a rite of passage,” and “everyone gets bullied.” The big message to us was:  “Get over it.”

We now know that bullying is too serious a problem to ignore. Bullying and harassment can destroy a child’s motivation and self-esteem, affect school attendance, academic performance, and physical and mental health.  Fifteen percent of all students who don’t show up for school say it’s because they’re afraid of being bullied. One out of every 10 students drops out of school because they are repeatedly bullied.

Bullying isn’t limited to face-to-face confrontations, either. Electronic social networks are such a part of kids’ lives today that they may type more messages than they speak each day. Like many aspects of our lives, bullying has gone electronic, too. It occurs in text messages, on Facebook and Twitter, and in email. Kids can now be bullied any hour of the day or night. They can even be bullied in their own homes, where we as parents, think our children would be the safest.

To escape the daily threats of violence and harassment, young people look for any solution — even bad ones. I hear from law enforcement officers all the time that kids join gangs for protection from bullies.

Tragically, many kids are bullied so severely that they don’t see any solution and turn to suicide. A study by the Yale School of Medicine notes that bullying victims are up to nine times more likely to consider suicide than other children.

These aren’t just statistics. They are real people with real families. At a recent Department of Education Bullying Prevention Summit, I met the mother of a Southern California 13-year-old boy named Seth who hanged himself because he just couldn’t take being bullied anymore. Seth’s family says that he had been bullied for most of his life, face-to-face, over the telephone and on the Internet.

Seth spent much of his short life terrified. His story is especially tragic because it could have been prevented. Heartbreaking stories like his tell us that we are failing as a society to protect our young people from bullies.

Being brave doesn’t stop bullying either. When Joey, from Pennsylvania, came out as gay in the eighth grade, he was bullied every day since — from taunts, to threats to violence. Joey told the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network that he was on the brink of suicide.

Thankfully, he found the support he needed and avoided becoming another tragic statistic. Joey’s positive outcome illustrates why it’s critically important we support anti-bullying programs.

Recently, I proudly re-introduced the “Safe Schools Improvement Act.” This bill would require schools to implement an anti-bullying policy that would protect students from bullying and harassment. This bill would also allow schools to use existing funds to teach students about the consequences of bullying and harassment.

For my colleagues who are worried about government spending, the “Safe Schools Improvement Act” costs nothing. It calls for no new federal spending.

The National Taxpayers Union — an outfit that counts every penny of federal spending — recently gave the bill a “no cost” score. If they say there’s no cost, there’s truly no cost.

However, there is a much larger cost to our children if we don’t fully address the issue of bullying. Bullying exists all across our country, and as a nation and as parents, we have to stand up to bullies.

Alberto said it best in his letter to me: “Schools should be a fun experience for children. They should be safe places to meet new people and learn great things.”

Schools must be safe for everyone. For Alberto. For Joey. For Seth. If schools aren’t safe, they fail at their most important purpose: to educate our children.

Sánchez represents California’s 38th congressional district. She is senior whip for the Democratic Caucus, ranking member on the House Ethics Committee and serves on the House Ways and Means Committee.