TODAY   |  October 23, 2010

President 'saddened' by bullying incidents

In a video posted on the White House website, President Barack Obama says he is "shocked and saddened" by a recent rash of suicides by young people who were picked on by peers for being different. TODAY's Lester Holt discusses Obama's comments with Joel Burns, the Texas city councilman's whose emotional account of being bullied in high school went viral online.

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This content comes from a Full-Text Transcript of the program.

LESTER HOLT, co-host: It has happened again. There are reports this morning that a 16-year-old student in Washington state killed himself after being bullied and harassed by students. It is the latest tragedy involving bullying , and it comes as President Obama issues a powerful message to stop it. NBC 's Jeff Rossen has more.

JEFF ROSSEN reporting: Rutgers student Tyler Clementi bullied for being gay, his intimate moments with another man allegedly taped by his roommate and streamed to the campus, driving Tyler to suicide. But since then, a rash of new cases. Just this week at Oakland University , just outside of Detroit , 19-year-old Corey Jackson took his own life , bullied, his parents say, because he was gay.

At the time, it seemed like a horrible but isolated case: He said, 'Ever since I came out people are treating me different.' He said, ' And I just don't know' -- he said, 'I don't know what to do, I don't know where I belong.'

Ms. KIM JONES (Corey Johnson's Aunt): At one high school in Ohio , parents say the bullying is so rampant...

ROSSEN: Bullied. Deceased. Bullied. Deceased.

Unidentified Woman: ...four students have taken their own lives in as many years. Bullying is as old as school itself, but has clearly resurfaced as a major national issue. Now President Obama himself is making a direct plea to teenagers.

ROSSEN: As a parent of two daughters it breaks my heart. It's something that just shouldn't happen in this country.

President BARACK OBAMA: The White House posted this video on YouTube .

ROSSEN: And we've got to dispel this myth that bullying is just a normal rite of passage, that it's some inevitable part of growing up. It's not. I don't know what it's like to be picked on for being gay, but I do know what it's like to grow up feeling that sometimes you don't belong.

Pres. OBAMA: The president's message part of the It Gets Better campaign, featuring thousands of YouTube videos from everyday Americans to celebrities.

ROSSEN: Too late for the families who lost everything, but just in time, perhaps, for the kids still suffering right now. For TODAY, Jeff Rossen , NBC News, New York.

ROSSEN: Joel Burns is a Texas city councilman who fought back tears when he spoke publicly for the first time about being tormented as a teenager for being gay. Joel , good morning. Thanks so much for being with us.

HOLT: Good morning. Thank you.

Mr. JOEL BURNS (Spoke Out about High School Struggles with Bullies): Joel , you certainly didn't start this national conversation , but you propelled it in a big way. And to see the president pick up, how did that make you feel?

HOLT: I think it's quite heartening, you know? I think it's also indicative of just how big a problem that we have with bullying in the United States and really across the world. And whether it's anti-gay bullying , whether it's kids who are overweight, dressed differently, talk differently, there's -- just anyone who's different, they're unfortunately the subject of a lot of bullying that's happening across the country.

Mr. BURNS: You know, and as you say that, I think of the years in which I've been doing this program and how many of these stories we have had to report of children who were perceived as being different for some reason took their lives or suffered some sort of harm. Is it your sense that we are a meaner culture, that this is a growing problem, or are we simply more aware of it?

HOLT: Well, in terms of suicides, I don't think that the number of teen suicides has grown, but I do think that the focus on bullying has been heightened. I have a sister who teaches in a rural school district , and she says in the eight years that she's been a teacher she's seen this grow from being something that was mostly in high school to being in middle school and elementary school , being boys, being girls. And I think it's something that we as adults have a responsibility to take on and address, and we have to empower our children to take steps to stop it in their own schools.

Mr. BURNS: Your message is very powerful, and as we noted, others have gone with the same phrase that it gets better. But let's think back to the teenage years. At the time any trouble you have seems like it's your total world and that it won't get better. How do you convince kids that you really do get past this, that things do change?

HOLT: Well, the truth is that things get better literally the next day. If you can just get through that really dark place where you think that there is no hope and just wait, just hold on long enough, you'll realize literally the very next day there will be things that seem not so bad. And then as you go through life, particularly for these gay and lesbian teens who feel like their parents don't understand them, their classmates don't understand them, they will get out of that situation. They will be able to go off to college or get a job and go off, have their own home, select their own friends, and they'll be able to choose their own life, at which point they can continue to make a lot of happy memories , a lifetime of happy memories . And they'll look back on their lives and think about those happy memories , not those particularly dark times .

Mr. BURNS: Right. And you told in that council meeting, you were so graphic in the description of the bullying that you endured. Do you remember the day the light came on, the moment you realized that, 'I'm going to get past this,' that it is better than yesterday?

HOLT: I think it's a progression. I think it was a situation much like I referenced, where the very next day, you know, I got up, I went to school, and things weren't as bad as I thought they were. And I think if kids will just hang on long enough and get through that one day of a really dark time, things do indeed get better and easier. And again, you'll make a lifetime of happy memories if you just give yourself the chance.

Mr. BURNS: Well, Joel , we're grateful that you are continuing in this important conversation. Joel Burns , thanks for being with us this morning. We appreciate it.