Katie O’Malley speaking at the 2012 Bully Prevention Summit. (Photo: Flickr/ MDGovpics)

The U.S. Department of Education held its third annual Bullying Prevention Summit Aug. 6-7 in Washington, D.C. The American Counseling Association was among the education and advocacy organizations invited not only to learn more about bullying and the government’s anti-bullying efforts, but also to share their thoughts on the programs.

ACA, along with organizations such as the American Psychiatric Association, the School Social Work Association of America and the National Association of School Psychologists, listened to keynotes from actress Marlo Thomas, famous for her role on the 1960s TV show That Girl, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius; Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.); Katie O’Malley, wife of Gov. Martin O’Malley (D-Md.); Roberto Rodriguez, special assistant to President Obama for education; and Cynthia Germanotta, mother of musician Lady Gaga, also gave presentations.

David Kaplan, ACA’s chief professional officer, attended the summit on the association’s behalf. He recounts how a controversial statement during Thomas’ keynote shocked the crowd but also made many of the attendees realize they were on the same page regarding the protocol to follow when dealing with bullies.

“During Marlo Thomas’ opening keynote, she stated that in her opinion, anyone caught bullying in elementary, middle or high school should be expelled,” Kaplan says. “Everyone gasped, because in the mental health field, that is not our approach. We don’t want to demonize bullies, and we don’t want to put them out on the street because they’ll bully out there.”

Kaplan says that in his closing keynote, Duncan subtly referenced Thomas’ controversial statements and rebuked them, adding that the Obama administration wants to avoid zero-tolerance practice polices that would expel bullies from schools.

“What was useful about the summit was that it presented to the major constituents the current research and initiatives the federal government is planning to fight bullying for the upcoming year,” says Kaplan. “It also provided feedback from the constituents on the programs the federal government is planning on implementing.”

Kaplan says ACA and other participating organizations recommended that the government “stop siloing bully prevention programs.” Current protocol focuses on specific groups that are targeted by bullying, such as children with special needs, Muslim children or LGBTQ children, he explains. “But what research is indicating is that bullies tend to bully across areas,” Kaplan says. “We need to see bullying as a comprehensive concept and to all work together.”

Additionally, participating organizations recommended that the overall tone of bullying campaigns should change, Kaplan says. “Instead of focusing on the negative, [with messages such as] ‘Stop bullying,’ we need to create a culture of respect,” he says. “Focusing on creating a culture of respect takes a much more holistic approach to bullying. It’s something that each member of a school system can work on, from the superintendent to the principals to the teachers to the school counselors to the students. It teaches respect for individual differences and valuing human dignity. A student who learns to appreciate individual differences and the dignity of their fellow students will not bully.”

For more information, visit the Department of Education’s blog, stopbullying.gov, or read Sheri Bauman’s Cyberbullying: What Counselors Need to Know, a 2011 book published by the American Counseling Association, as well as the June 2011 Counseling Today article “Bullies with byte.”

Heather Rudow is a staff writer for Counseling Today. Email her at hrudow@counseling.org.