02/01/2013 11:53 am ET Updated Apr 03, 2013

Tackling the Role That Bullying and Harassment Play in School Violence

As our nation's leaders struggle to implement gun-violence prevention laws in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, we must not squander the opportunity to address the root causes of gun violence in our schools. Although most of the headlines have focused on banning certain types of gun equipment, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) wants to draw attention to and thank the president for proposed measures to create safe school environments that are free from bullying and harassment.

As reported in The Huffington Post, the accused shooter at California's Taft Union High School may have targeted children he perceived as bullies. This tragedy provides a clear example that any serious discussion of school violence prevention must consider the climate in schools, including eradicating bullying and harassment and properly training school professionals and bystander students. We need to figure out how to get our kids to talk to us so that they can get the help they need.

AAUW's report Crossing the Line: Sexual Harassment at School shows that our country is dealing with a pervasive problem: Nearly half of all 7-12th grade students said that they have encountered some form of sexual harassment and that this harassment caused them to feel sick to their stomach, have trouble sleeping, and skip school. As we know, harassment can lead to disastrous outcomes, especially for students who are targeted for failing to conform to gender stereotypes, which is often the case for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students who report sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment in middle and high schools is rarely reported; only about 9 percent of harassed students reported the incident, according to AAUW research. Serious questions remain about how well our society is providing a safe and welcoming environment for all students.

Harassment and bullying are cyclical. Harassers and bullies have often been harassed or bullied themselves. According to the 2004 Safe School Initiative report, almost three-quarters of those who committed school violence felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked, or injured by others before doing so. Crossing the Line found similar results among students who sexually harass other students. In extreme cases, like the Taft shooting, the experience of being bullied appeared to have been a factor in the decision to attack the school. A safe and supportive school culture and climate is critical to avoiding violence at school. The president's proposal would provide much-needed resources to schools so they are better equipped to prevent severe violence.

Congress needs to act now to create safer school climates by providing resources to help local school districts hire resource officers and mental health professionals and invest in safety. Furthermore, Congress should enact legislation similar to the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Successful, Safe, and Healthy Students Act -- introduced in the last Congress and likely to be reintroduced soon -- which support proven strategies to reduce bullying, drug abuse, violence, and other problem behaviors.

Our nation's schools should be the safest places possible for children. We're glad the White House is tackling the role that bullying and harassment play in school violence, and we look forward to supporting initiatives that protect all students.