When a wave of immigrant families settled in Bucyrus, Ohio, the schools faced a clash of cultures. Some 96 percent of the city’s 12,000 residents identify as white. In one classroom, a teacher instructed the class that Mexican immigrants were to blame for drug trafficking in the United States. Following his comments, a Mexican-American fifth-grader was targeted with racial slurs, harassed and then suspended for misconduct.
Bucyrus had a bullying problem, and city officials wanted to do more than punish students and react to incidents; rather, they wanted to stop the bullying before it began. They wanted a school environment in which standing up for someone in trouble would be a source of pride and standing aside would be a source of embarrassment. They wanted to teach courage in the face of persecution, even when — especially when — students saw their friends persecuting others.
And so it happened that I received a call from the superintendent of Bucyrus City Schools. He had heard about Speak Truth To Power (STTP), the human rights education curriculum offered by the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, the organization my family founded in 1968 to carry forward my father’s unfinished work.
We teach that curriculum in schools around the world — from Phnom Penh, Cambodia, to Pisa, Italy; from Stockholm to Chicago. Some of our STTP students live in towns that still bear the scars of World War II or count their relatives among the victims of the Khmer Rouge. Here in the United States, too many of our students follow the bell at recess to a playground rife with gang violence.
Two years after the superintendent reached out to me, students in Bucyrus schools now learn the stories of legendary human rights heroes such as anti-apartheid leader Desmond Tutu and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. They also hear about such women as Juliana Dogbadzi, an escaped child sex slave who at age 20 single-handedly emancipated 5,000 girls by successfully lobbying her government to ban a centuries-old cult practice. Students not only learn about human rights defenders, but they also are trained to become defenders themselves.
Following the implementation of STTP, according to a forthcoming independent study we commissioned, Bucyrus students reported a change in attitude regarding bullying, particularly their awareness of bullying as an issue. Administrators have seen an increase in reports of bullying, and one student described the STTP activities as “helpful not just in handling bullying, but [providing] reasons to be more open-minded about other people.”
We went to Bucyrus to teach Speak Truth To Power, our first experience working directly with a school and community to target bullying, and we learned something ourselves. Bullying is, at its core, a human rights violation. It is the abuse of the powerless at the hands of the powerful, and it is a threat against the right to receive an education free from persecution. Bullying is the first human rights violation millions of students in the United States will confront. As a human rights organization, it’s not something we can ignore.
Two children in every classroom in America are estimated to miss at least one day of school each month because they feel unsafe. Local governments realize we cannot afford to dismiss youth violence as simply “kids being kids.” Anti-bullying legislation has been passed in 49 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
Putting prevention back in bullying prevention is the goal of the RFK Center’s newly launched RFK Project SEATBELT — Safe Environments Achieved Through Bullying prevention, Engagement, Leadership and Teaching respect. The initiative provides resources for parents, educators and community members to create supportive environments through a human rights framework that instills responsibility, respect and resiliency to prevent bullying.
The initiative’s name is our answer to critics who say bullying is ingrained in the culture of an American childhood. To those people, I ask: Who remembers the days when wearing a seat belt was considered optional?
In my father’s lifetime, manufacturers weren’t even required to install seat belts in their vehicles, and it wasn’t until 1984 that riders were required to use them. But when my daughters get in a car today, putting on their seat belts is second nature. In just one generation, we watched a profound shift in social norms related to seat belts.
We can change for the better. We do it all the time, and our children are even better at it than we are. Parents, teachers, neighbors, bus drivers — we all can do our part to raise children who see themselves as human rights defenders. In doing so, we’re not just creating safer schools for them but also passing on to them a more just and peaceful world.
Kerry Kennedy, the daughter of Robert and Ethel Kennedy, is president of the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights.