WASHINGTON — President Obama smiled when he said his large ears and funny name once made him a target of school-yard harassment. But he was all seriousness Thursday when he told a White House conference on bullying that torment and intimidation must not be tolerated.
Some 13 million students, about a third of all those attending school, are bullied every year, the White House said. Experts say that puts them at greater risk of falling behind in their studies, abusing drugs or alcohol, or suffering mental or other health problems. Kids who are seen as different because of race, clothes, disability or sexual orientation are more likely to be bullied.
"If there's one goal of this conference," Obama said, "it's to dispel the myth that bullying is just a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up. It's not." He spoke to more than 100 parents, students, teachers and others gathered to discuss the problem and share ideas for solutions.
"Bullying can have destructive consequences for our young people. And it's not something we have to accept," he said.
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The issue has been getting more attention partly because texting, Facebook, Twitter and other technologies are being used to carry it out — it's called cyberbullying — and because of media coverage of teens who have killed themselves after such taunting.
Families of some of those young people joined Obama at the White House, including Tina Meier of suburban St. Louis. Meier's 13-year-old daughter, Megan, hanged herself in 2006 after falling victim to an Internet hoax carried out, in part, by an adult neighbor who posed as a boy. The neighbor, a woman, was later convicted of a federal misdemeanor in a landmark cyberbullying trial.
"No family should have to go through what these families have gone through," Obama said. "No child should feel that alone."
Meier had a message for parents who want to take away their children's computers and other electronic devices to spare them from bullying: It won't work. She urged them instead to get a better understanding of what their kids are doing.
Obama said adults have too often turned a blind eye to the problem by chalking up the harassment to kids being kids. But he said a national attitude adjustment is in order because of the damage that bullying can do.