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Seventeen year old Brittney Barros told us she was so relentlessly bullied by peers for her looks, she was considering suicide. Five times she did what her school suggested she do to get help. She put her name on a list in the principal’s office. Nothing happened. Fifteen year old Deborah Fagan said in middle school she experienced verbal abuse and her peers created a humiliating fake twitter account in her name. Her failing? “I was too white for the black kids, and too black for the white kids.”

Despite the State Board of Education in 2006 asking all districts to put in place and implement model anti-bullying policies and practice, and state legislation reinforcing this expectation passed in 2011, over half of Michigan school children report that bullying is still a problem in their schools. That’s the disturbing findings from a study just released by Wayne State University researchers. The report also found Michigan is one of the five states with the highest percentage of high school students who reported being bullied on school property, and is one of worst states for cyberbullying.

These findings are unacceptable. There can be no tolerance for bullying. Bullying not only hurts people, it can end lives. We can and must create an environment in every school in which all kids learn, all are equally valued, and all have equal opportunity to realize their full potential. The many schools that have changed their culture to not accept bullying, show it can be done. I asked my own son, a high school senior, about bullying at his school. “We talk about it a lot. The teachers are on it. The kids are on it. It isn’t acceptable, and it doesn’t happen.”

The first step to do better is for the adults to take bullying seriously. Anyone who thinks bullying is not a big deal, or “kids will be kids – is part of the problem. We can, as a society, learn and grow. Look how fast we’ve grown in acceptance and appreciation of our LGBT friends, co-workers and relatives. We can do the same with bullying and not perpetuate a “Lord of the Flies” school culture.

The next step is to understand what can change this culture. First we must honestly name the problem. As helpful as the 2011 state anti-bullying legislation was, it did not ask school districts to identify and report bullying episodes. Too many schools, like Brittney’s, did not take it seriously. We need mandatory reporting. Second, we have to acknowledge what drives a lot of bullying. It’s picking on the different kids: the LGBT kids, the kids from a different racial or ethnic group, the disabled kids. Again Michigan’s anti-bullying law was stripped of explicit reference to these groups as targets.

When WSU School of Social Work Professor, Jun Sung Hong, author of the study, also reported effective anti-bullying policies explicitly acknowledge and deal with these diversity issues.

Finally, we have to help schools implement the effective evidence-based approaches to bullying prevention, not just hold assemblies. There are models that work. That train the faculty and staff. That empower the kids, help them learn how to relate and work with each other. That acknowledge and focus on appreciating our differences.

Doing better on bullying is both an educational and economic imperative for Michigan. Yes, we have to help all kids thrive in school, getting the education they need for success in life. But if we don’t want to lose our young people, Michigan must also send a clear message in our public policies that all children are welcomed and supported here: gay, straight, or transgender; black, white or brown; nerd or jock. Our diversity is our greatest strength and learning to live, work and learn together our greatest project.

John Austin is the president of the Michigan State Board of Education.

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