At White House Conference, President Obama, First Lady Focus on Bullying

VIDEO: Parents, teachers and students will join president for first-of-kind
WATCH Obamas Host Anti-Bully Conference

In the past year, the headlines have shocked America: unrelenting bullying, enough to drive several young people to commit suicide.

The tragic stories of Phoebe Prince, who hanged herself after repeated bullying, and Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University who jumped off the George Washington Bridge after he was allegedly filmed during a "sexual encounter" with another man by his roommate who later posted the footage online, brought renewed attention to an issue that in the past may have been dismissed as unavoidable or simply part of growing up.

Now, however, bullying is more widely recognized as a significant problem for young Americans and today President Obama and first lady Michelle Obama lent their weight to the issue, hosting a first-of-its-kind White House conference on bullying.

Obama said the key goal of the conference is to dispel the myth that "bullying is just a harmless rite of passage."

"It's not. Bullying can have destructive consequences for our young people," he said. "And it's not something we have to accept."

Michelle Obama said they were moved to get involved in this issue not just as president and first lady but as parents of young children.

"As parents, it breaks our hearts to think that any child feels afraid every day in the classroom or on the playground or even online," she said. "It breaks our hearts to think about any parent losing a child to bullying or just wondering whether their kids will be safe when they leave for school in the morning."

An estimated 13 million students experience some form of bullying every year in U.S. schools. Experts say that bullying can begin at a young age and continue all the way through high school.

What would you do if you witnessed cyber-bullying? "What Would You Do?" used its hidden cameras to find out.

The president admitted that the issue was personal for him, too, because he was picked on as a child.

"I have to say, with big ears and the name that I have, I wasn't immune," he said to laughter in the East Room of the White House. "I didn't emerge unscathed."

To address the issue, the White House conference brought together teachers, parents and students, including Michael Sousane and Monique Martinez of Sherwood High School in Sandy Spring, Md.

These Maryland high school students serve as teen mentors in an after-school anti-bullying program, called "You Have the Power."

"We hear stories all the time about bullying situations on the playground or in the lunchroom," said Sousane, a freshman.

"We're telling them how they themselves can deal with it if they are a victim of bullying. We're explaining to them how they can help others," said Martinez, a senior.

Sousane, Martinez and other Sherwood High School teens work with elementary and middle school students, teaching them how to recognize bullying, deal with it -- and prevent it.

"We're telling them what it is, giving them the definition of bullying, giving them the types of people that are involved – the targets, the allies, the bystanders and the bullies themselves," Martinez told ABC News. "Basically that's the point of our whole program, to empower them to be allies and to help other students in school if those students feel that they are being targeted."

"We want to make sure that people leave our program understanding that just like eating poorly, taking drugs, smoking -- bullying is unhealthy for us," said Robyn Holstein-Glass, the Executive Director of Project Change, which organizes the anti-bullying program.

The program focuses on peer mentoring, based on the idea that young students will be more likely to confide in older students whom they see as a mentor, rather than a teacher or guidance counselor.

"It gives them kind of more of a connection – you have a relationship with a teacher, a teacher is a mentor but really the age gap makes a difference," Sousane told ABC News.

Sousane said a parent thanked him personally for helping her daughter who was being bullied.

"It made me feel really empowered that I could change something in the community," he said, "That I could make a difference."

That is exactly the message the White House wants Americans to take from today's conference – while the federal government has focused on this issue, it's individuals like Sousane, Martinez and Holstein-Glass and their communities that can have a powerful impact.

"As parents and students, as teachers and members of the community, we can take steps, all of us, to help prevent bullying and create a climate in our schools in which all of our children can feel safe, a climate in which they all can feel like they belong," the president said.

Holstein-Glass said that was what she wanted to hear from the president today at the White House conference.

"This is a problem – we need to show respect for each other. This whole idea that we can get ahead by putting other people down is not acceptable," she said.