Q&A with Emerging Leader & Federal Anti-Bullying Official Deborah Temkin
Today, the White House holds a summit on bullying. One of its organizers is Deborah Temkin, the Research and Policy Coordinator for Bullying Prevention Initiatives at the US Department of Education, Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools.
A 2007 graduate of Vassar College, Deborah works closely with Assistant Deputy Secretary Kevin Jennings and the members of the Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention Steering Committee. She is also a doctoral candidate at the Pennsylvania State University in Human Development and Family Studies. Her research focuses on the relationship between bullying and friendship networks.
Deborah is an inspiring young leader whom I met at another federal summit on bullying, and I asked her how she got interested in bullying.
1. How did you get involved with the issue of bullying?
I never expected to make bullying my career. I was bullied pretty badly as a middle school student. It started out as a fight between my friend and me after I was named editor of our school newspaper. She started to exclude me, not letting me sit with my friends at lunch. She began telling everyone my deepest darkest secrets. It soon escalated to the point where I had nowhere to sit at lunch and I began to dread going to school every day. My school did nothing, no matter how much my parents or I complained. The school officials made my life worse in many ways as well – trying the typical conflict resolution approaches of sitting my former friend across the table from me and trying to work it out, or trying to force me to eat my lunch by myself in the middle of the cafeteria. Needless to say, that experience – and the anger I held toward the school for not protecting me – really stuck with me.
Right before I went to college I read Odd Girl Out which gave me the language I needed to talk about what happened to me and made me realize just how many other girls out there were likely being ill-served by their schools and facing similar issues to those that I had once experienced. I made it my mission to understand everything about bullying, specifically relational aggression, in addition to education policy, in order to find ways to integrate bullying prevention into the policy discourse.
2. How did you end up at the Department of Education?
I always had it at the back of my mind that the ultimate way of getting bullying to be something that schools actually considered was to go from the top, down. So, in my mind, the Department of Education was the logical place; but I never intended to go there before I finished my degrees.I went to the International Bullying Prevention Association conference in November 2009 to hear Kevin Jennings, the new leader of the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools speak about school climate and bullying. His speech there pretty much summed up everything I had been thinking about through college and grad school.
I somehow got over my shyness, walked up to him, and asked him to let me help him achieve his goals. I don’t think he realized just how serious I was about making bullying part of the discourse, but I worked as an unpaid intern for several months before he offered me a full-time position.
3. Tell us about what the federal government is doing to address bullying. What are you most excited about?
The main goal of our work at the federal level is to provide the framework with which those who are on the ground – whether it be schools, parents, or students themselves—are able to address bullying. This means doing things like providing guidance about best practices or bringing together researchers to help come to a consensus on defining bullying.
When we started our work in 2009, no one would have predicted that bullying would have become the “hot topic” it is now. Although it has reached this level based on great tragedy, it is supremely exciting that people up to and including President Obama are now talking about the issue. The fact that we’re talking about it, acknowledging it, and no longer tolerating the tradition of “sucking it up,” is an incredibly exciting step.
We hope that this progress can bring optimism to those individuals who currently feel alone because they are bullied, and in the very least, give them hope that people will begin to take notice of these dangerous patterns.
4. What’s your job there?
I am a jack-of-all-trades. In essence, if there’s something going on at the Department of Education that relates to bullying I am involved. Whether its event planning, writing talking points and guidance memorandum, responding to correspondence, or designing research projects, if it has to do with bullying, I’m there.
5. You made it a point to make sure relational aggression was included in the government’s efforts. Why?
Attention to bullying has slowly been growing since I was in middle school. Columbine happened just after I finished middle school, and suddenly states started passing laws requiring schools to pay attention. And yet, those policies were incredibly limiting – defining bullying as causing physical harm. I was never really physically hurt when I was bullied, and realized those laws would never have protected me or any other person who had experienced relational aggression. Although people are realizing more and more that relational aggression is part of the equation, some still assume that it is “less serious” than verbal or physical aggression. We know in the research that this is simply not true. So making it an explicit part of our work is important to change those assumptions.
6. What advice do you have to young women who are interested in entering this field?
There are many ways to get involved with bullying prevention. My main advice is to read as much as you can – news articles, research papers, books, anything to get a better picture of the many pieces that go into this. We need researchers to answer new questions and find new solutions. We need policymakers to craft new ways to protect people. We need child advocates, teachers, and other educators to make schools better places. Everything works together and none are mutually exclusive. No matter what you want to end up doing, you can always find ways to make bullying prevention an important part of your day to day.