March 1, 2011 at 5:45 pm EST | by Chris Johnson
White House to hold anti-bullying conference next week

White House (Blade photo by Michael Key)

The White House is set to hold a conference next week in which President Obama will hear  concerns about anti-LGBT bullying.

The anti-bullying prevention conference, scheduled to take place at the White House on March 10, is being hosted by Obama, the Department of Education and the Department of Health & Human Services.

In a conference call Tuesday, Melody Barnes, White House domestic policy adviser, said the conference will bring together students, parents, teachers and other leaders who “have been affected by bullying, and who have taken action to prevent bullying.”

“Participants will have the opportunity to speak with the president and representatives from the highest levels of the administration about bullying as well as ways to take action to address it in their communities,” Barnes said.

Bullying against LGBT students received renewed attention late last year when several young men who were gay or perceived to be gay took their own lives after they were reportedly bullied. Among them was Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University student, who leaped off the George Washington Bridge in September after a video was posted online of him reportedly having a sexual encounter with another man in his dorm room.

Barnes noted that Obama appeared in the fall for a video for the “It Gets Better” campaign to speak out against anti-gay bullying. Barnes called the issue “very, very near to the president and the first lady’s heart.”

“The president believes we must ensure schools are safe for all kids for every single child who walks through that door, and we look forward to this conference and the opportunity to hear from individuals from diverse backgrounds about how bullying has affected their lives as well as attempts individuals and communities have taken to stop it,” Barnes said.

Barnes added more details would be made available about the conference in the future, such as the names of participants. Sources have told the Washington Blade that representatives from LGBT advocacy groups would be among the participants in the conference.

Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, said she’s participating in the conference with GLSEN board member Sirdeaner Walker, a Springfield, Mass., resident whose son, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover committed suicide after being subjected to anti-gay taunts in 2009.

“Events like this are very important ceremonial moments for public commitments on the part of those in the position to really make a difference on this issue,” she said. “Hopefully, we will see some progress come from it.”

The Trevor Project is also set to have representation at the conference. Dave Reynolds, the Trevor Project’s senior public policy and research manager, is scheduled to represent the organization.

In an e-mail to the Blade, Charles Robbins, executive director of the Trevor Project, emphasized the importance of the conference.

“We hope to see further alignment in protecting LGBT young people in our nation’s schools from emotional and physical harm,” Robbins said.

Michael Cole-Schwartz, spokesperson for the Human Rights Campaign, said his organization will also have a presence at the conference and is “looking forward to this opportunity to shine the spotlight on the epidemic of anti-LGBT bullying in our schools.”

“HRC’s Welcoming Schools program, developed for K-5 schools, seeks to end the name-calling and gender stereotyping too often prevalent and this will be a great opportunity to explore strategies with other leaders to address these issues,” Cole-Schwartz said.

LGBT advocates are hoping to pass anti-bullying measures — introduced in the last Congress as the Student Non-Discrimination Act and the Safe Schools Improvement Act — as part of the Education & Secondary Education Act reauthorization, which is expected to come before lawmakers during the 112th Congress. Neither piece of legislation was addressed during the conference call.

Asked whether she wants to see a commitment from the White House to include anti-bullying language in ESEA reauthorization, Byard replied, “We certainly have pressed that case before and we’ll continue to do so.”

“We’re very pleased at this point to have bi-partisan support for such action in both houses of Congress and take every opportunity that we can to make the case with everyone involved in the process about how incredibly important very specific, actual language in that context would be, and I certainly hope that we will receive such a commitment,” she said.

Obama administration officials discussed the upcoming conference in the context of highlighting Obama’s interest in bolstering education efforts in the United States to facilitate greater competition in the global marketplace.

White House Deputy Communications Director Jen Psaki said “there’s absolutely nothing more central” to the country’s economic success and global competitiveness than education.

“This is an issue that the president feels is not a Democratic or Republican issue, but an economic issue,” Psaki said. “That’s one of the reasons he proposed an 11 percent increase in education in his [fiscal year] 2012 budget, even while making tough cuts in other areas.”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said one of Obama’s priorities is to turn around the nation’s poorest performing schools by reducing the national high-school drop out rate and expanding education opportunities.

“In the State of the Union address and in his [fiscal year] 2012 budget, President Obama has called for key investments in education,” Duncan said. “He believes in order to win the future for this generation and next, we must dramatically accelerate learning for all children.”

Obama and Duncan are set to tour the country in the coming weeks to emphasize the importance of improving schools and education programs.

On Friday, Obama is set to make an appearance at Miami Central High School in Florida along with former Republican Gov. Jeb Bush. Duncan said the school, which received nearly $790,000 in federal money to improve education efforts, is “a turn around model” for reducing drop outs and offering new opportunities for students.

Chris Johnson is Chief Political & White House Reporter for the Washington Blade. Johnson attends the daily White House press briefings and is a member of the White House Correspondents' Association. Follow Chris

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