Stand With Lizzie: Help Get the School Safety Improvement Act Passed in 2016

Bullying is a societal issue with potentially detrimental ripple effects spreading well beyond the perceived victim, to negatively impact the wellbeing of the bully, those who wittiness bullying, and the community at large.

One study indicates that both victims and bully-victims (those who bully but are also victims of bullying) were at increased risks for poor health, job problems, debt, lower educational attainment, domestic violence, and poorer quality relationships with parents and friends.

When bullying and harassment rise to the levels of physical force or stampeding on a student's civil rights, the pent up feelings of powerlessness, isolation and shame can lead to catastrophic results, with the most drastic outcomes including, suicide in an attempt to make the pain stop, and school shootings or other violent behavior aimed at getting revenge.

"We've got to dispel this myth that bullying is just a normal rite of passage," said President Obama (Anderson, 2010).

The School Safety Improvement Act (SSIA) is a federal bill proposed to address and take action to prevent bullying and harassment of students. It was re-introduced in the 114th Congress in the Senate by Senators, Robert Casey (D-PA) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) in January 2015, and in the House by Representatives Linda Sanchez (D-CA) and Chris Gibson (R-NY) in June 2015.

It would mandate that elementary schools prohibit bullying and harassment in their codes of conduct and document any such incidents in annual school safety reports submitted to the US Department of Education.

Enter, Lizzie Velásquez--activist, motivational speaker, and focus of the documentary A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velásquez Story.

Now spearheading a national effort to prevent school bullying, Velásquez was inspired to take a stand after years of bullying culminated with her being labeled "the World's Ugliest Woman," in a YouTube video.

According to a recent article, supporters of her efforts to get the Safe Schools Improvement Act passed in congress, include celebrities, Kylie Jenner, Bryce Dallas Howard, Kristen Bell, Brandon Rush, Zachary Quinto, and America Ferrera among others.

Federal legislation to address and end school bullying and harassment also has broad support from educators and school administrators including, the American Federation of Teachers, American School Health Association, National Association of School Psychologists, National Education Association, and National Parent Teacher Association.

Interview Segment with Lizzie Velasquez:

How can readers take action to support this bill--the School Safety Improvement Act?

We just launched something really cool on our website, There is a section that you can click that says support SSIA, where you can type in your state and your representative will come up along with their photo. If there is a green overlay on their photo it means they support the bill and if there is a red overlay on their photo it means they do not support the bill.

If you click on the photo you will see four options on how to reach them. You can personally contact them and thank them supporting the bill or request that they take a look at the bill and support it as your representative.

Having worked in schools for many years I can attest to the disruptive environment bullying creates. What was the defining moment for you that made you take a stand?

I think it was a combination of a lot of things because when I was in elementary school, that is when I was introduced to the world of bullying and when I was in high school, that's when I was introduced to the world of cyber bullying.

I think what really led to me turning all of it around was trying to figure out how I was going to show the world who I am as a person verses not letting the "ugliest woman in the world" or all of the other hateful comments become my truth. I was just so desperate to show them what my own truth is and I was not sure how that was going to come about but I definitely didn't think it was going to lead me where I am today.

I am a great believer in following one's truth and love to hear this path is what led you to this space. How much did the confidence your parents had in you, impact your ability to shield yourself from the bullying you encountered outside your home? Or did it help at all?

The reason I was so shocked in elementary school and other kids started bullying me, is because my parents raised me so normally. My mom became an at-home babysitter so I could be home and around other kids, so I just grew up with this knowledge that I was just like them. The confusion really hit when I was outside of my home and around other kids and they did not want to have a single thing to do with me.

My dad and I started a routine once I got older where he would go with me--because at the time he was a teacher--so he would go with me to my class each year on the first day of school. He would basically introduce me to my class and say "this is Lizzie, she looks a little bit different but she's just like you..."

It really did help and it made a really big difference, mostly for the kids I saw on a daily basis. But when walking through the halls or being outside, I of course had to deal with everything all over again. But going home at the end of the day, my parents, and my siblings, my extended family, and the people at church were all just treating me like Lizzie.

It was very hard for me to understand why this group of people treated me normally and the other group of people didn't, and that's when my parents were the key thing for me between and all of that. They were the constant support that I needed--the encouragement, a shoulder to cry on, or my dad always making me laugh in any situation. So they definitely played a key part in many, many different ways.

I noticed when looking at the language of this bill would seem to protect students based on the standard anti-discrimination categories: "actual or perceived race, color, national origin, sex, disability status, sexual orientation, gender identity, or religion, among other categories."

I am wondering what the "among other categories" extends to? And I'm curious to know where does teasing end and bullying begin?

In my experience a lot of kids are socially isolated based on their physical appearance rather than a disability. For example, the fat kid in the class being harassed or someone calling a classmate ugly or making fun of the kid with acne or the girl who is developing at a faster pace than her peers and has breasts in the 3rd grade--so where do you see the line of demarcation between bullying and teasing?

That's a really, really good question. I don't think I've ever been asked that before. But I think I can speak to my experience and my personal feelings about that.

When I'm doing motivational speaking I always remind kids that, " you may think that what you are saying is a joke, but to the other person it doesn't feel that way."

And I'm always giving them the reminder that, "whenever you use your words, you have to remember the power that you put behind those words because sometimes those can hurt someone more that if you physically hurt them."

It's hard because I feel that everyone has a different opinion and it will vary in every classroom.

I have definitely seen some parents who will say, "Well, he was just kidding," or "You're being ridiculous," or "You're making too big a deal of this."

Or coming from the perspective of, "Well they should be made fun of because it will make them stronger and it will make their skin thicker."

Of course I don't believe in it's hard. I am hoping that if the bill gets passed that for one teachers will have the training--I don't think they've ever been trained in this way before--to know exactly how to handle bullying in their classrooms when they see it, versus seeing someone being mean and responding with, "Why are you doing that?" and putting them on the spot or putting them in the corner, and pointing the finger...which often makes the situation worse.

Also along with teacher training, is the importance of having an open dialogue in the classroom as well I think is very, very important and also providing the "safe space," so kids have the freedom to say, "well for me, this is when it crosses the line for me."

Because some kids won't speak up, they say to themselves, "If I do say something, I will be looked at as a tattle tale...or I will be seen as weak." So kids need to know that the teacher can help them if they are bullied.

Also the bill will have it so the schools keep track of these incidences...because if you look for bullying statistics, say in Texas today, they doesn't exist because no one has been tracking it.

I keep telling people that I'm not a professional lobbyist and that I've just been working as an activist in the last two years but I've been learning as I am going along so I don't have all the answers or know all the fine points of the bill.