DES MOINES - When Emily Domayer was 7-years-old, a classmate pointed at three kids and made a declaration that stuck with her well into her 20s.
"Dumb," he said, pointing to one classmate.
"Dumber," he said of the second, again pointing.
T-R PHOTO BY DAVID ALEXANDER
U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), left, and Emily Domayer listen to comments from the audience at the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pension Committee hearing Friday afternoon at East High School in Des Moines. The panel discussion led by Harkin, the committee’s chair, aimed to get input from various agencies as to how best to combat bullying in schools at a legislative level.
He pointed at Emily.
"Dumbest," he said.
It was the first time a bully targeted Emily because of her Asperger's Syndrome. But it would not be the last. She was not, as she put it, a "cool kid."
But even at 7-years-old, she said, she knew that people shouldn't treat each other that way.
"I wish my elementary school teachers and administrators had done more to address bullying. I felt so alone," she said. "Bullying is not a rite of passage."
Situations like Domayer's often leave psychic scars that never fully heal. They can even lead to suicide. Several tragedies that demonstrate this social trend all too well, along with increased media coverage, has launched the bullying issue - and local, state and federal efforts to curb it - into the spotlight.
Domayer, now 24, of Sioux City, along with others, shared her story at a Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee hearing led by chair U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) Friday afternoon in the cafeteria of East High School in Des Moines.
The discussion aimed to establish what state and federal governments can do to quash school bullying.
"We want to address this issue on a broad basis," Harkin said. "We want to know our role. What can we do to be supportive?"
A study released Friday by the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) studied the reach and scope of bullying. In the report, the GAO recommended state and federal governments do more work to examine civil rights and determine whom they protect.
That way, said Linda Calbom, western regional director for GAO, governments will know how to tailor policies that protect everyone.
One of the main problems facing legislators is the absence of a unified definition of bullying, she said. Many states use different definitions of what constitutes bullying.
While some feel it is important to name each protected classification, others feel that doing so would exclude those not protected by proxy.
Ellen Reilly, a learning support specialist with Davenport School District, said dealing with bullying is a complete, methodical process.
"Policy is not going to get us anywhere," said Penny Bisignano, a consultant for bullying and harassment with the Iowa Department of Education. "We really have to look at this as a system."
Along with U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Harkin introduced The Successful, Safe, and Healthy Students Act of 2011 June 1. The act allocates $1 billion to grants aimed to create a school environment where bullying cannot thrive.
The panel discussion helped refine how to best use such grants, whether through social media or, as panel member Liz Siederquist suggested, something as simple as segregating students while they take surveys about their bullying experience.
Paul Gausman, superintendent of Sioux City Community School District, said school officials need to put in place policies that are proactive about snubbing out bullying. For instance, Sioux City Community School District, which was recently featured in the 2011 documentary "Bully," has put audio and video equipment on all its buses.
"Bullying is defeated by prevention, not by reaction," he said.
Reilly echoed this sentiment, saying that zero-tolerance policies are ineffective because they do not address the issue's core, which she said is done by focusing on social environments and involving adults.
Gausman said he agreed to allow the film maker to feature his district in the documentary to stir things up and get the conversation started. For better or worse, schools bear the responsibility.
There is no panacea for this problem, he said.
"It's our culture and our culture must change we need to understand the bullies to really make a difference. It's about power. It's about control," he said. "We can't look out the window and find the villain. We have to look in the mirror."
Kids cannot thrive and learn if bullying keeps them in constant fear of reprisal, he said. It's not just schools where bullying is a problem, it's everywhere. Schools are just more social than most environments.
Only when communities learn to address this problem at every level by setting good examples, will schools make headway, he said.
Members of the panel agreed that forging partnerships such as Gay-Straight Alliances is one of the best ways to eliminate bullying.
Siederquist, who came out as a lesbian in high school, said she believes policies should require teachers and administrators to regularly train on anti-bullying efforts.
Addressing bullying requires self-acceptance and accepting others, she said.
"It's important to embrace who we are," Siederquist said.
That loneliness and isolation Doymayer and Siederquist, and thousands more like them, felt as children cannot be overcome unless efforts are united, they said.
"The bullies are the ones who are really alone," Harkin said. "They don't represent the mass of any student body."