According to a recent survey from STOMP Out Bullying, a leading youth bullying prevention organization, 88 percent of teens believe the U.S. is lacking kindness right now. That’s not surprising, considering the divisive political climate we’re living in. A few weeks ago, for example, the president attacked New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand online, calling her a “total flunky” who “‘begged’ for campaign contributions” and “would do anything for them.”
A majority of participants in the STOMP Out survey also said they felt the current climate is impacting the way teens treat each other. Sadly, there’s no shortage of news reports of kids sharing their stories of being bullied, and sometimes with tragic consequences. One of the most heartbreaking to come out recently is that of 10-year-old Ashawnty Davis, a fifth grader in Colorado who took her own life after a video of her in a fight was posted on a social media app and she was subsequently tormented by her classmates.
Stories like Davis’ are all too horrifyingly common. It’s maybe part of the reason why last year Melania Trump, prior to becoming the First Lady, said she would work to combat online bullying.
“Our culture has gotten too mean and too rough, especially to children and teenagers,” Trump said during a public appearance near Philadelphia last November. “It is never OK when a 12-year-old girl or boy is mocked, bullied, or attacked. It is terrible when that happens on the playground and it is absolutely unacceptable when it’s done by someone with no name hiding on the Internet.”
But as her first year in one of the most influential roles in the country draws to an end, the First Lady’s office has yet to release information about any anti-bullying efforts. VICE Impact reached out to her spokeswoman, Stephanie Grisham, to find out if she had any details. “As she has since day one of this administration,” Grisham responded via email, “Mrs. Trump is focused on the overall well-being of children and looks forward to announcing her initiatives in due time.”
A quick check of the @FLOTUS Twitter stream confirms her interest in working for the best interests of children.
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Last week, Trump was photographed sorting through toys with military families. There’s also a recent video of her visiting the National Children’s Medical Center and photos of her with more military kids around a Christmas tree in the White House.
But it was a visit to a Michigan middle school in October—documented on Twitter with both video and photos—that garnered real attention in the media. Was the First Lady finally making good on her promise to fight childhood bullying?
Not exactly. Grisham told the Huffington Post that Trump was doing research on her initiatives and discovered the #NoOneEatsAlone campaign, which encourages kids to include others at lunchtime. The First Lady sat in on a sixth grade classroom at Orchard Lake Middle School as they discussed social and emotional inclusion. Grisham said that “the visit in Michigan should in no way be characterized as a ‘bullying prevention campaign.’”
Lauren Paul is one of the co-founders of the Kind Campaign, a nonprofit focused on combating girl-against-girl bullying. She and co-founder Molly Thompson have quite a bit of experience tackling this issue: In the eight years since the program’s inception, more than 400,000 students across the world have participated in Kind Campaign assemblies, and over 1,600 schools have implemented the programming. And it works: According to research they conducted on the campaign’s impact, Paul and Thompson found that two out of every three girls apologizes to someone during or after an assembly.
Paul talked about why the issue demands our attention right now. “Historically,” she told VICE Impact, “acts of bullying were ignored and considered as normal social behavior, or just a part of growing up, unless it became physical, or in some tragic cases, lead to death. Bullying occurs through many different mediums today (cyber bullying being one of the most notable forms), but this issue is something that all generations have had to deal with at some point or another—and everyone can relate to either being bullied or participating in bullying.”
“Because technology has allowed bullying to transcend the school hallways and capture attention at a national scale,” she continued, “we’ve found that it is so important to start conversations about ending bullying behavior as early as possible. Bullying is a systemic issue that needs to be addressed, and the sooner we can address this with children at young ages, the sooner we can start to put an end to the harmful practice.”
While Paul and Thompson declined to offer any perspective on where they think the First Lady’s influence is most needed in the work to make schools safer for students, Paul said there “is light at the end of the tunnel,” noting how schools have evolved and are taking a stand against bullying. “When we started Kind Campaign, there was no conversation taking place about bullying in schools,” she said.
The question is, where will the First Lady fit into all this? Time will only tell. For context, former First Lady Michelle Obama launched her signature Let’s Move campaign a little over a year after former President Barack Obama took office. By that timeline, we may see an announcement coming out of the First Lady’s office soon.
What we do know is that the issue hits home for her: In August, Trump thanked the daughter of her husband’s formal rival for standing up for her son Barron after he was targeted in a Daily Caller story. “Thank you @ChelseaClinton,” the First Lady tweeted, “so important to support all of our children in being themselves! #StopChildhoodBullying.”