Beyond Vassar

Taking Aim at Bullying: Deborah Temkin '07

By Ronni Gordon '76

It all began when Deborah Temkin's English teacher named her editor of the newspaper at Orange Grove Middle School in Tucson, Arizona, and a friend's jealousy spiraled out of control.

Deborah Temkin '07
Deborah Temkin '07

"She kicked me out of the lunch table. She spread rumors about me," Temkin recalls. Once the girl's campaign began, others joined in, exclusing her, spitting at her from school bus windows, pushing her into a water fountain, and even writing on Instant Messenger that they were going to blow up her house.

“I still get anxious eating in a cafeteria sitting by myself,” says Temkin, recalling those lonely lunch breaks.

“The amazing thing was the school’s lack of response,” she says. “They tried mediation, which is the wrong approach, because it suggests that both kids are to blame,” she says. “They never asked me what I needed.”

That experience, though painful, set Temkin on her life course—a career in bullying prevention, beginning in 2010 with a post at the United States Department of Education as the first federal employee devoted to the goal.

Temkin’s thoughts on bullying first crystallized on her flight to Admitted Students Day at Vassar in 2003 when she read Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls by Rachel Simmons ’96.

“I remember crying on the plane and feeling like I finally had the language to describe what had happened to me,” she says. “No one was talking about relational aggression (behavior that is intended to hurt someone by harming his or her relationships with others), and Rachel gave me the ability to not only recognize what had happened but identify with others for whom it also was an issue.”

At Vassar, Temkin double-majored in psychology and education policy—an independent major combining sociology, political science, and education classes. She went on to earn a master’s in education theory and policy and a doctorate in human development and family studies from Pennsylvania State University. Her research focused on bullying, adolescent social networks, and education policy.

Public concern about bullying rose after it was suspected as a motive for the 1999 Columbine High School shootings. Her own interest led to her big break in 2009 when she heard Kevin Jennings—then the assistant deputy secretary for the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools in the Education Department—speak at a bullying-prevention conference in Pittsburgh.

“He spoke to everything I had been thinking about—that students couldn’t learn if they didn’t feel safe,” she says. “I’m a pretty shy person, but I was so enamored with everything he said that I just went up to him and said, ‘I would like to work for you.’”

That introduction earned her an unpaid internship with the Education Department while still a graduate student, and, shortly afterwards, to a staff job.

In 2010, she led planning for the first of three annual Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention Summits. It brought together 150 people, mostly government and nonprofit group leaders. She also played a key role in planning the 2011 White House Bullying Prevention Conference where President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama spoke; it led to the creation of—which includes information on preventing bullying, responding to it, and finding help—for which Temkin led the interagency editorial board. In 2012, her work earned her recognition as a finalist for the Call to Service Medal of the Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medals, which recognizes outstanding federal employees under the age of 35.

“In the last five to ten years the awareness of bullying as an issue has changed,” she says. “The sentiment that kids will be kids is not as prevalent. Whether or not the awareness of bullying as an issue has had an impact on rates of bullying is not as clear.”

Though the classic in-your-face variety is still more prevalent, cyberbullying has gotten more attention of late. A series of youth suicides in 2010 brought it to the fore. Media reports suggested that bullying had precipitated the deaths, but Temkin worries that this media slant itself might actually be giving children the idea that suicide is a normal reaction to the situation.

Cyberbullying is more persistent—“[The messages] are there every second of the day,” says Temkin—but what cyberbullies don’t often realize is that the electronic medium, where records are always accessible, makes it easier to prove their offense.

After an organizational restructuring at the Education Department in 2012, Temkin went to work for the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights. Since August 2014, she has been a researcher at Child Trends, a Bethesda, Maryland, nonprofit providing data and analysis of programs and policies affecting children and youth. As director of education research at Child Trends, she provides research to policy makers on a range of education issues, including bullying prevention. Temkin also maintains a blog on the Huffington Post where she identifies many of the misconceptions held about bullying.

For example, in one post, Temkin points to the research that shows that criminalization and zero-tolerance policies regarding bullying—where suspension or expulsion is the outcome—are appropriate only in rare occasions.

“Kids who get kicked out of school are at a much higher risk of ending up in the criminal justice system. We need to think about what other kinds of things we can do,” she says. One alternative approach is “social and emotional learning,” which Temkin describes as “building empathy as well as understanding your own and others’ emotions.”

Looking back at her own middle school trauma, she wishes administrators had focused on such preventative models.

The work of freeland writer Ronni Gordon '76 has been published in the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and in many other publications online and in print. She was previously a reporter at the Springfield Republican in Massachusetts.