This is one in a series of profiles on the 2012 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal finalists. The awards, presented by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, recognize outstanding federal employees whose important, behind-the-scenes work is advancing the health, safety and well-being of Americans and are among the most prestigious honors given to civil servants. This profile features a finalist for the Call to Service Medal, Deborah Temkin, Research and Policy Coordinator for Bullying Prevention Initiatives at the Department of Education in Washington, D.C.
Lady Gaga may be a high-profile public face in the fight against bullying, but 26-year-old Deborah Temkin is playing an important parallel role in making it a topic for national action.
An expert on the subject at the Department of Education, Temkin delves into the research on bullying, and offers information and guidance to top leaders on what is relevant to policy and programs. She also provides advice on what federal, state and local governments can do to take action to prevent further victimization.
“At 26 years old and leading these high-profile efforts, people looked at her and were probably initially thinking, ‘Who’s this girl?’” said Kevin Jennings, former assistant deputy secretary of education.
“But Deborah established herself with a deep understanding of the issue. She’s a rare talent who can translate the research into practical terms,” Jennings said. “She won respect and credibility by being able to lay it out and make people understand why it’s important.”
As the bullying prevention coordinator, Temkin has a hand in all Department of Education activities on bullying, including planning educational events, providing talking points for top officials, responding to correspondence, designing research projects and coordinating work on bullying prevention with nine other departments.
In 2010, after several high-profile suicides linked to bullying, the Department of Education was charged with coordinating a government-wide response. Jennings, who designated Temkin as the project lead, said she “galvanized the government and, by extension, the nation.”
Bullying has become endemic in America’s schools. Studies show that upwards of one-third of all students report experiencing bullying-physical, emotional and social-and three-quarters report witnessing it.
When states and school districts clamored for federal guidance on how to develop policies and legislation, Temkin pulled together information for a memorandum issued by Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
It provided examples of legislative components from state laws on bullying, such as the definition of prohibited conduct, characteristics of students who historically have been targeted and provisions for establishing school anti-bullying policies. The memo served both to inform state legislatures as they passed more than 30 new bills on bullying between 2010 and 2011, and as the basis for an in-depth study on the content of anti-bullying laws that the Department of Education released in December 2011.
“Deb is the go-to person on the issue,” said Kristen Harper, special assistant at the Department of Education. “If there’s anything to do with bullying, she is there.”
Temkin, who is completing a doctorate on bullying prevention, also organized the first White House conference on bullying prevention that was held in 2011. She was energized by the attention it garnered thanks to a keynote address by President Obama.
“We are definitely seeing more awareness and efforts around this issue,” Temkin said. “Kids are realizing their rights and standing up for themselves.”
She also organized two summits on bullying prevention for federal partners and led an interagency effort to create StopBullying.gov, a website that provides information from government agencies on how people can prevent or stop bullying. Temkin keeps in close communication with, and offers technical assistance to many individuals and organizations working on bullying prevention. This includes Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation, which works to fight bullying, and documentary filmmaker Lee Hirsch, who made a movie about bullying.
Temkin said one of the most heartbreaking aspects of her job is responding to calls, emails and letters from children who are in painful situations, or from their parents who are trying to figure out what to do.
“I provide resources, but I can’t intervene on individual cases,” she said. “I sometimes hear my mom’s voice in those calls, concerned for their children’s safety, and it breaks my heart. They motivate me to continue to keep working on this problem.”
Temkin learned about the issue the hard way, as a victim of bullying by a former friend who turned on her and who drew others into the scheme to exclude her at school. Her school either did nothing, she said, or made things worse using typical, but ineffective, conflict resolution approaches.
She thought about pursuing a career in education but changed her mind. “I wanted to work at the policy level to have broader impact,” she said.
In 2009, Temkin approached Jennings at an International Bullying Prevention Association conference, told him she had dedicated her life’s work to bullying prevention and asked if she could work for him. The agency had no open positions, but Temkin moved to Washington anyway to work as an unpaid intern. Now others seek her out for her bullying prevention know-how.
One of her many current activities involve developing ways to get better trend data to know whether the problem is getting better or worse. One of the complications is that different sources define bullying differently. Temkin, in coordination with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is working with experts in the field, to create a common definition.
Jennings said that Temkin’s drive and commitment to public service is a model for others her age, and all ages. “She is exactly the kind of young person we want in public service and who we need to encourage and retain,” he said.