Kevin Epling was one of 150 people invited to participate in the first of its kind anti-bullying conference at the White House Thursday.
Epling lost his 14-year-old son, Matt, to suicide in 2002. Epling says his son took his life after being victimized by bullies. Since then, he and his wife Tammy have been telling their story to Michigan lawmakers, school groups, students and more. They have been tireless advocates in pushing the Michigan legislature to pass a comprehensive anti-bullying law, as well as organizing programs raise awareness about, and ways to address, bullying. If the legislation ever becomes law, it would be named Matt’s Safe Schools Law, in honor of Epling’s son.
The White House announced it would hold the conference last week, and planning has been underway since a series of high profile teen suicides drew the nation’s attention to the usually underground problem of suicide and bullying. Epling, however, was not on the original invite list. He received a call on Wednesday, and flew to DC in order to be at the White House Thursday morning.
Also on Thursday, Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colorado) and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minnesota) introduced legislation in Congress that could help begin to address bullying. The legislation, the Student Non-Discrimination Act, would ban discrimination in public schools against LGBT students, reports the Washington Blade.
“As parents, this issue really hits home for us. 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,” said First Lady Michelle Obama in opening remarks for the conference. “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.”
President Obama noted that as a youth with “big ears and the name that I have,” he was targeted for bullying.
“Bullying isn’t a problem that makes headlines every day. But every day it touches the lives of young people all across this country. I want to thank all of you for participating in this conference. But more importantly, I want to thank you for being part of what’s a growing movement — led by young people themselves — to put a stop to bullying, whether it takes place in school or it’s taking place online,” Obama said. “And that’s why we’re here today. If there’s one goal of this conference, it’s to dispel the myth that bullying is just a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up. It’s not. Bullying can have destructive consequences for our young people. And it’s not something we have to accept. 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.”
For his part, Epling said the conference was an important step.
“It was definitely a kick start to a lot of things. A lot of things are starting to happen,” Epling told Michigan Messenger by phone Thursday night. “Having the White House involved was a positive move after not hearing anything from years.”
He said the conference renewed his commitment to continue to raise concerns about bullying, and to help communities find ways to address the issue. But he said in order for that to work, the state has to pass comprehensive anti-bullying legislation. Such legislation has passed the state House in two different sessions, but died in the state Senate both times, making Michigan one of only five states without such a law.
“Other states have gone back and rewritten and revised their bills while our legislators have been arguing amongst themselves,” says Epling. “Our biggest problem with anti-bullying legislation is the adults.”