The nation's top civil rights lawyer visited the Fayette County Public Schools in Lexington on Wednesday, urging students to stand up and get involved in efforts to end all forms of bullying in schools.
Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas E. Perez, who heads the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, spoke to and fielded questions from about 700 freshmen, representing all five Lexington public high schools, at the school district's Norsworthy Auditorium. Some other freshmen in their respective schools could watch live on the district's TV channel and could text or email questions.
"Education, my parents always taught me, is the great equalizer," Perez said. "But you can't get a quality education if you don't feel safe in school. You can't get a quality education if you're constantly ... wondering whether you're going to be harassed or beaten, or if you're getting texts or emails saying horrific things."
Perez noted that bullying has evolved from old-fashioned physical intimidation to the use of social media to spread malicious and hurtful statements about students.
In some parts of the country, students victimized by bullying have committed suicide because they thought they couldn't get help, Perez said. He said there have been reports that school shootings occurred as byproducts of bullying, although he said the exact relationship is "unclear."
A student charged with shooting a classmate at a Maryland school on Monday had been bullied, according to his attorney.
Perez said bullying can lead to worse problems when bullies grow up and adopt more aggressive behaviors. The Justice Department can intervene in such cases under various federal statues, including a law making it a crime to attack someone because of his or her sexual orientation.
"This is a huge problem," Perez said. "Today's bullies are often tomorrow's civil rights defendants. I'm getting sick and tired of prosecuting teenagers who have committed horrific crimes. I don't want that to happen anymore."
Perez urged Fayette students to respect their classmates, support friends if they are bullied, and report cases of bullying to school officials.
Bullying is far from being a new problem. Both Perez and Fayette schools Superintendent Tom Shelton said Wednesday that their own daughters had been victims of bullying in public school.
Perez insisted that bullying shouldn't be dismissed as "just a rite of passage."
"There is this sense that this is something that happened 'when I was a kid,' and it's going to happen when your kids have kids," he said. "That's not right. We want to put an end to it."
Shelton said the Fayette schools don't have complete numbers on how much bullying takes place in the district. But he noted that "Tom's Squad," a group of high school and middle school students that advises him, identified bullying as one of the five most serious issues facing the school system.
Shelton said teachers and staffers are trained in how to identify students who are being bullied and in how to deal with problems. But the district needs to do more, he said.
Perez answered questions from reporters, including student journalists from various Fayette schools, before addressing the freshmen. He also joined in a panel discussion of bullying with Fayette schools Law Enforcement Director Chris Townsend; former University of Kentucky football player Jeremy Jarmon; and Samantha Kinchen, a Henry Clay High School senior and 2012 USA Junior Olympics Boxing champion.
Kinchen said she sees bullying "a lot" in school, and she said students often are afraid to report it. Victims sometimes are afraid they'll get into trouble if they defend themselves, she said. Kinchen said she thinks rules on that should be clarified.
Shelton said later that a student defending himself from a bully potentially could be held responsible if he or she acts as the aggressor. Students should alert teachers instead of taking matters into their own hands, he said.