When Donald Trump addresses the nation during his State of the Union on Tuesday night, there will be a whole cast of characters by his side. One of these special guests is a sixth-grader who now goes by Joshua Berto. Joshua is attending the event because his actual last name is Trump, and he’s been bullied because of it. Melania Trump will sit beside Joshua Trump during the SOTU, drawing attention to her own anti-bullying “Be Best” initiative, but it likely won’t leave experts convinced.
Jonathan Cohen Ph.D., an adjunct professor in Psychology and Education at Columbia University, explains to Inverse that Melania Trump’s choice to showcase Joshua Trump’s plight is really just about optics. There’s more than one place where her actual bullying policies have fallen short.
“I think any time a First Lady focuses on an issue, that is potentially very positive,” he says. “I don’t know what impact her work has had thus far for two important reasons. One she’s not partnering with organizations that have done this work already, which is too bad because she would have a bigger impact if she would. Two, she’s in a difficult position, because her husband, for me, is an example of someone who is publicly being a bully.”
The “Trump Effect”
According to CBS News and a White House press release, Joshua Trump has so brutally teased because of his last name that his parents pulled him out of school for a year and asked that his name be changed in the school’s internal system.
Tuesday’s announcement that Joshua Trump would attend the SOTU address has drawn criticism. Choosing a kid who is being bullied for having the same name as Trump is somewhat tone-deaf, argued the Washington Post, given the fact that children that identify as LGBTQ+ or come from racial or ethnic minorities have actually been bullied more since the 2016 election.
This uptick in bullying has been described anecdotally as the “Trump Effect” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. In January, a paper published in Educational Research backed this phenomenon with data showing that, at least in Virginia, bullying incidents were 18 percent higher in localities that supported Trump. Nine percent more students also reported being teased because of their race or ethnicity in districts that backed the President.
Cohen has been called by school superintendents describing the “Trump effect.” He adds that the president’s rhetoric and actions do seem to have authorized people to “be explicit about more negative pre-judgements and take a more aggressive stance.”
What Can “Be Best” Do Better?
Aside from the President’s behavior, Cohen says that the actual “Be Best” initiative is so far lacking when it comes to developing research-guided solutions to bullying problems. His colleagues, he adds, have reached out to the First Lady in the past regarding bullying policy initiatives and haven’t heard back.
Even if she doesn’t choose to engage with the field of bully-related research, Cohen says there’s plenty the White House can do in terms of setting an example that districts around the country can follow. For example, if the First Lady wanted to really make an impact of bullying, she could shine a light on the importance of mental health in schools.
“We know on one hand that a lot of kids who chronically fall into the role of bully are kids who have been traumatized or are psychiatrically troubled. We are woefully underfunded in providing mental health services to children across America. That’s one thing that Mrs. Trump, if she wanted to, could support.”
As for Joshua Trump, attending the State of the Union may have made him a national name overnight, but the actual policy initiatives he’s been brought there to represent are somewhat lacking. Not every kid who has been bullied, because of their name, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation, can get invited to a SOTU address, which makes the actual work that the White House can do to help stem bullying in the first place even more important.
“Mrs. Trump has an opportunity to focus on policy initiatives and to support funding for what we know from research actually helps all children to feel supported and engaged in school life,” Cohen says. “I don’t know that Mrs. Trump is doing that now. I hope I’m wrong, but if she doesn’t take next steps it’s unclear the kind of impact this is going to have.”