By: Dr. Timothy P. Shriver, Ph. D.
Chairman & CEO, Special Olympics
A devastating number of recent headlines about school bullying have sent policymakers, educators, parents and students in search of solutions. But we should be careful to avoid quick fixes that extinguish problem behaviors instead of addressing root causes. Anti-bullying programs, like other symptoms-focused wars, miss the point by directing attention to what needs to stop. While understandable, anti-bullying campaigns alone are insufficient for effective prevention. Instead, the major emphasis should focus on equipping children with the skills and experiences that we want them to start having.
The statistics are staggering. Nearly 17% of American students are bullied at least two to three times a month, and 28% of students were bullied sometime during the last six months. Little more than half of high school students feel they are important in their school community, and tragically, nearly 15% of high school students have seriously considered suicide within the last year.
The reality for students with intellectual disabilities is even bleaker. In one recent study, less than one-third of public school students acknowledged having a schoolmate or classmate with intellectual disabilities, and only 10% of all students reported having a friend with intellectual disabilities, demonstrating the isolation and alienation students with disabilities experience every day in their schools.
An unlikely set of leaders is changing that status quo: students with intellectual disabilities. Through Special Olympics Project UNIFY, these students are leading an effort to start doing things right — to start promoting acceptance, along with Unified Sports and recreation. For 42 years, children and adults with intellectual disabilities have joined Special Olympics to promote a culture of empowerment and acceptance for all young people, with a formula for success that provides opportunities to train and compete in sports together, to engage communities in change, and to deepen a sense of commitment to an inclusive worldview.
Today, this youth-led campaign is devoted to developing school communities where all young people are agents of change — fostering respect, dignity, and inclusion for all. Through Project UNIFY, students with and without intellectual disabilities are rallying together to end the use of hurtful language, holding youth summits on inclusive education, playing side-by-side on the same Unified Sports teams, creating clubs and conducting communal activities to promote acceptance and inclusion, challenging existing prejudices and stereotypes in their classrooms and communities.
It is understandable, with the terrible news that enters our living rooms almost every day about bullying, that leaders are focused on what needs to be stopped. In the past 40 years, the athletes of Special Olympics have learned one lesson: What you start is just as important as what you stop.