Sirdeaner Walker was cooking dinner for her family while her son Carl was in his room, where she thought he was doing his homework.
Instead, she later discovered, Carl had hanged himself with an extension cord around his neck. He was 11 years old.
"What could make a child his age despair so much that he would take his own life?," Walker asked members of the House Education Committee today. "That question haunts me to this day, and I will probably never know the answer. What we do know is that Carl was being bullied relentlessly in school."
Walker was joined today by other parents, students, educators and psychologists testifying before Congress on strategies for improving school safety and violence prevention.
Before his death in April, Carl told his mother he was being pushed around and teased for being "gay" and called a "faggot." But when Walker alerted the school, she said they portrayed Carl as the problem.
"I engaged with the guidance counselor at Carl's school," Walker said. "The guidance counselor met with Carl once a week starting in November until his death. She would come up with a grid for his teachers, and his teachers would sign in '1' if he behaved or '0' if he didn't behave. What I found was, it was sort of like the victim, which was Carl, he became the problem. It was like it was Carl's problem.
"I did everything that a parent is supposed to," Walker said. "I choose a 'good' school; I joined the PTO; I went to every parent-teacher conference; I called the school regularly and brought the bullying problem to the staff's attention. And the school did not act. The teachers did not know how to respond.
"School bullying is a national crisis and we need a national solution to deal with it," Walker said. "Teachers, administrators and other school personnel need additional support and clear guidance about how to ensure that all kids feel safe in school. Congress can make sure they have that guidance and support by making anti-bullying policies mandatory at all of our nation's schools."
Witnesses: Schools Should Re-Evaluate Bullying and School Violence
The other members of the panel testifying before the House Subcommittees on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education and Healthy Families and Communities agreed that schools need to reevaluate their approach towards dealing with bullying in schools.
Scott Poland, president of the National Association of School Psychologists, argued for a more comprehensive community-based approach to dealing with bullies and school violence, saying teachers and adults must know when to step in.
"Their very inactivity has condoned the behavior," he said.
Poland noted that many students do not turn to adults because they do not trust the adults around them, they fear retaliation or they have been conditioned not to "tattle tale."
Students, on the other hand, argued before the committee that peer-to-peer youth programs are necessary to help children feel safe enough to speak out against bullies.
As one victim, Jacquelyn Andrews -- daughter of committee member Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J. -- explained, "if just one other person had stood up behind me, the bully never would have prevailed. But no one did."
Andrews and her sister, Josie, developed an anti-bullying curriculum that teaches students how to stand up to bullies and make the right choices when they witness school violence or harassment.
The program grew out of their musical movie, "Milo J High," about the dangers of bullying and what can be done to prevent it. Other national youth programs, such as "Students Against Violence Everywhere," seek to engage students in their own safety.
"I recommend that a student involvement component, such as SAVE, be a part of every school's comprehensive safety plan," said Cassady Tetsworth, a member of the SAVE Youth Advisory Board.
Educators at the hearing called for "character education initiatives" to be built into school curriculums so students can learn ethical decision-making, behavior skills and conflict resolution tactics.
As principal of the Hannah Penn Middle School in York, Pa., Rona Kaufmann converted the in-school suspension room into a "character education room," where students were engaged in developing strategies to better manage their attitudes, anger and peer interactions. During the 2007-2008 school year, there was a 60 percent reduction in discipline referrals, down from 5,000 a year to less than 1,200.
"We now serve at Hannah Penn as a model program for other urban middle schools in Pennsylvania," Kaufmann said.
"Charter Education" May Be Necessary To Decrease Bullying
Steve Riach, founder of the Heart of a Champion Foundation, agreed that character development is essential to changing the landscape of violence in schools.
"It takes more than addressing those issues that would be solved by security guards, surveillance cameras and metal detectors," he said. "It takes a dedicated effort to change the heart."
According to Riach, students enrolled in his character-based curriculum have been found to exhibit less violence and perform better academically.
When it comes to measuring school violence, Kenneth Trump, president and CEO of the National School Safety and Security Services, argued that improved incident-based school safety data would greatly improve federal policy and funding decisions. According to Trump, Congress currently relies on survey-based data provided by the Education Department rather than incident reports.
"If we can't identify the problem, we're not going to be able to develop meaningful programs to intervene," he said.
Trump recommended passing the Safe Schools Against Violence in Education Act, introduced last session, which would require states to use the FBI's National Incident Based Reporting System in determining the "danger levels" of schools.
Several members of the panel also advocated the use of stimulus funds for enhanced school safety and called for incorporating enhanced protections into the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind.
As for Walker, she has found solace in speaking out about the issue surrounding her son's tragic suicide. She has become involved with GLSEN, The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, advocating for the passage of the Safe Schools Improvement Act, which would fund school programs to prevent bullying and harassment on the bases of actual or perceived sexual orientation.
"My son was only 11," she said. "He didn't indentify as gay or as straight or anything like that. He was a child. Those kids at his school called him those names because they were probably the most hurtful things they could think to say. And they hit their mark.
"I didn't really know what to expect when my contact with GLSEN brought me together with a diverse group of students, some of whom had been the victims of bullying," she added. "What amazed me the most was not how different we all were, but how much common ground we had. We shared our stories and it gave me hope and the courage to speak out on behalf of my son, Carl."