Friday, December 13, 2013
Kerry Kennedy, the daughter of Robert and Ethel Ke
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.
But laws and reporting systems aren't enough. We must move beyond simply having the systems in place to react to bullying. We must instill in our youth the ideals of civility and respect, and we must create environments that prevent bullying everywhere our children live, learn and play.
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.
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