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Bullying, Leadership and the Presidency of the United States

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The 1965 bullying incident at Michigan's elite Cranbrook School that came to light this week has kicked off a series of conversations about bullying and about the extent to which we should hold our nation's leaders accountable for past behavior.

But even after Mitt Romney's "If I offended" apology this week, his comment about not remembering the incident, in which classmates say he was the ringleader, troubled many people. His remark hinted at a dangerous indifference to personal freedom and human rights that we do not like to hear from our nation's leaders, even in their teenage years.

But in the midst of this story is a broader point about the role of leadership and individual action in promoting or discouraging environments like the one described in the Washington Post on Thursday.

The stories shared by the Cranbrook Class of 1965 included perpetrators, bystanders and victims of bullying, but no sign of a defender -- the only sort of person with the moral courage to stand up against their peers for a greater good. These are the people who make human rights victories possible and they represent the greatest opportunity for true leadership that most students face during these formative years.

Because, every time a student hears a sexist joke or a racial slur, every time she hears the words 'faggot' or 'slut' or 'fatso' or 'retard,' she must make a decision. Will I be a perpetrator, a victim, a bystander or a human rights defender?

And each time she makes that decision on which role she will play, she is exercising a muscle. Like any muscle, the more she uses it, the stronger it becomes. And its strength defines who she is in her school, her family, her neighborhood, and most importantly, who she sees when she looks in the mirror.

In the RFK Center's Speak Truth to Power program, we are working with schools across the United States and in countries like Italy, Cambodia and Sweden to turn every student into a defender. We spread this message through the life stories of human rights activists like Elie Weisel, Vaclav Havel and the Dalai Lama who risked everything to fight for a more just and equal future.

For too long, we've allowed ourselves to equate targeted bullying with innocent teasing, or dismissed it as pranks and ignored the torment and long-term impact that an incident like this has on young people. These impacts are felt hardest by the victims, but you need only read the accounts of remorse from the men who helped attack John Lauber as boys, or those who merely watched it happen, to realize that when no one stands up to play the role of a defender, all those involved suffer a wound.

The fact is, human rights victories are rarely won by powerful governments or well-armed militaries. More often than not, these battles are led by individuals and small groups of people determined to overcome wrong. Think King, Gandhi, Mandela. It's a lesson with big implications for our world, but it's also the very essence of the leadership and compassion we all hope our children learn in school.

Unfortunately for the students at the Cranbrook School in the mid-1960s, there was no such leader. But we hope that today, resources like our Speak Truth to Power curriculum and the power of the anti-bullying movement will mean that fifty years from now, a presidential candidate will be telling us about the times they defended human rights in school, and how that itself shaped their path to leadership.