By Sandra Lilley, NBC News
"I am so excited," said Susan Burkinshaw, co-chair of the Health and Safety Committee of the Montgomery County, Maryland Council of PTAs, reacting to her upcoming participation in Thursday's White House Conference on Bullying Prevention.
In the wake of increased national attention to the problem of bullying President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama are hosting the first ever White House conference on the issue Thursday.
The conference will bring together teachers, parents and students from across the country, including Burkinshaw who will participate via web site. She is thrilled that the issue has reached the national stage, "When it comes to bullying, everyone has to be on the same page."
Burkinshaw, a mother of three, recalled the incidents at a local middle school last year that compelled her PTA to call for a district-wide anti-bullying program.
"A girl's locker was vandalized with a used sanitary napkin," Burkinshaw said. "The girl's clothes were stained, so she had to wear gym clothes the rest of the day. Her locker was defaced with markers. But the school originally classified this as vandalism, even though the girl felt completely victimized."
In another incident, Burkinshaw spoke of a sixth grader who was "tormented" by different groups of students. "They called her ugly, ridiculed her clothing, and even took a picture of her in the bathroom with an iPod Touch. But it took a long time to resolve since so many different groups of children were bullying her."
It was stories such as these that compelled her PTA to implement a countywide, bully reporting program aligned with state policies.
'Connect for Respect'
Since then, the Montgomery Council of PTAs has organized ongoing meetings with students, parents, school authorities and local public officials, including the state attorney's office.
"I don't believe that our community would take this as seriously if the parents didn't press the issue," added Burkinshaw.
The need to combat bullying has propelled the National PTA to launch a nationwide initiative, "Connect for Respect."
"It's time to step it up because bullying is not just happening on playgrounds anymore. It's happening everywhere; online, via text, and on social networks. And parents may not know that it’s happening or what to do about it," said Chuck Saylor, National PTA President.
Dr. Tara L. Kuther, a professor of psychology at Western Connecticut State University who specializes in adolescent and at-risk children, added: "Social media makes bullying more public and humiliating, allowing students who once might have been bystanders to participate in the bullying. Some websites permit anonymous posting, which allows bullies to act without fear of retribution or getting caught."
Some of Kuther’s tips on understanding bullying are part of the National PTA’s website at www.PTA.org/bullying.
The National PTA's "Connect for Respect" initiative will provide resources for parents, as well as for local PTAs, to encourage anti-bullying events, as well as the creation of anti-bullying policies and practices.
Back in Montgomery County, Maryland, Susan Burkinshaw said the PTA was encouraged that "although the reporting of bullying incidents increased, the number of serious bullying incidents declined."
Organizers like Burkinshaw and the National PTA's Chuck Saylor hope the White House conference on bullying gives anti-bullying efforts more national exposure, thus helping more children avoid being victimized in their schools.