Bullying and harassment cannot be tolerated, and pro-active students can be part of the solution, according to Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas Perez.
Assistant U.S. Attorney General Thomas Perez asked Fayette County freshmen to have the courage to step up and make a difference.'
“Bullying is not a rite of passage, and we want to put an end to it. It can be eliminated if everybody works together to build a learning environment that is respectful of people’s differences,” he said Wednesday. “Students are the front lines. We have to equip kids so they can react (appropriately) if they are witnesses. I’m very optimistic that all the building blocks for success exist here.”
Perez, head of the Civil Rights Division at the U.S. Justice Department, spoke to more than 700 ninth-graders from across Fayette County Public Schools assembled in Norsworthy Auditorium. About 2,400 freshmen participated virtually through a live classroom feed. They could email, text and post questions for the panel during the hour-long interactive program.
For instance, one student asked about the thin line between joking and bullying. Another wondered at what age bullying starts and at what age it ends. “Too early and too late,” Perez replied.
Reiterating the district’s firm stance on bullying, Superintendent Tom Shelton encouraged teachers and staff members to establish trusting relationships so that students will confide in them if they are victimized or see classmates targeted. “We want them to know they’re loved and cared for,” Shelton said.
Perez – whose own children are age 10, 13 and 16 – agreed. He urged teachers, cafeteria monitors, bus drivers and others to help create secure space for all students.
“It’s about safety. Education is the great equalizer, but you can’t get a quality education if you’re constantly looking around the corner, wondering if you’re going to get harassed or bullied,” he said. “You can’t learn if you perceive your teachers and administrators don’t have your back.”
Perez spoke with passion as a civil rights lawyer and as a father whose child was bullied in middle school. The other panelists were Samantha Kinchen, a Henry Clay High senior and USA Boxing Junior Olympic Gold Glove champion; Chris Townsend, law enforcement director in FCPS; and Jeremy Jarmon, a former University of Kentucky and professional football player.
Each emphasized the importance of squelching harassment and embracing the full spectrum of humanity. Jarmon recalled how he joined not only the football team but also the debate team and the theater club in high school.
“Having a diverse group of friends will help you develop as a person and prepare you for the real world,” he told the packed auditorium.
Perez, whose parents emigrated from the Dominican Republic, pointed out that all types of professionals, from firefighters and police officers to lawyers and educators, should recognize “our diversity is our greatest strength.” Indeed, global companies like Coca-Cola and Microsoft look for culturally competent employees who value diversity in the workforce.
FCPS brought in freshmen from all five high schools.
“Civil rights is about making sure everybody gets a fair shake,” said Perez, who referenced this week’s 49th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Yet even in 2012, opportunity gaps persist, and people still try to divide the nation along arbitrary lines. Hate crimes and cyber bullying are growing concerns, and one sobering result is an increase in teen suicides. Perez also lamented the trend of schoolyard bullying escalating to violent crimes against people with disabilities, people from other countries, people who are gay and others.
“Today’s bullies are often tomorrow’s civil rights defendants,” he said.
Perez urged the Lexington freshmen to have the courage to step up and make a difference, following King’s example.
“Set some ground rules for your behavior and the world you want. We have to build an environment where you respect everyone for who they are,” he said. “We can’t solve these problems from back in Washington alone. We need you to help make sure the environment here is rich and nurturing.”
Story and photos from FCPS