Tackling bullying isn’t easy, especially if it occurs in ways you never expected it…
Back to school is a happy time in our household. My girls, Mia, 17, Gianna, 16, and Bella, 12, crave the routine, reliable schedule, socialization and freedom that school provides. It also is a welcome entrance back into peer interaction, even if it’s orchestrated and planned, and not organic.
Truth is, we spend far more time together than a typical family of teens and a preteen—there are no slumber party invitations, dates with cute boys or movie nights with friends. That’s the sad reality of autism in our household (perhaps yours too). But autism is what my kids have, not who they are, and I know that teenagers want to spend far less time with Mom and Dad than youngsters do.
However, there is a serious potential downside of getting our kids back into the swing of school, and that’s bullying. During the last year, as I’ve spoken to various groups around the country, I’ve focused on this painful and sadly ubiquitous topic. Once our children leave the house, and we close the front door, ready for work or to start our day in the home, how do we ensure that our kids are safe?
The Evolution Of Bullying
For those of us who remember The Brady Bunch, bullying has become a lot more vicious than when Buddy Hinton (I didn’t have to look up that name, I remembered it, which I probably shouldn’t admit!) made young banana curl pigtailed, lisping Cindy Brady cry by taunting her with, “Baby talk, baby talk, it’s a wonder you can walk.”
So given that bullying has evolved, how do you identify it and prevent it? It often isn’t easy, especially if bullying goes further than the standard definition we all tend to subscribe to: One child taking advantage of another child. In our case, my husband Mark and I found out the hard way that adults are bullying our kids as well. In 2010, our youngest daughter Bella, who was 10 at the time, was physically assaulted on a First Student bus by the aide/monitor. This young woman in her early 20s was twisting and manipulating Bella’s thumb and hand, causing an angry dark bruise with swelling—a sprain—that appeared on at least four occasions.
Fortunately for Bella, we figured out through a process of elimination that the bus was the likely place the injuries were happening. Unfortunately, it took a sobbing, hysterical Bella, whose behaviors changed for the worse, for us to say, “Oh my God, it’s the bus.”
Behavioral changes are a hallmark of “something is wrong,” and if you see a new aggression or behavior that feels “off,” start looking at your child’s environment to see if someone (adult or child) might be provoking the behavior.
A review of the school bus security tapes showed the following scene unfolding on Bella’s bus. The monitor stood, moved to sit across the aisle from Bella, reached into Bella’s personal space and… we could then hear a previously quiet Bella whimpering before she screamed in pain. We heard the monitor say to a substitute driver, “We take this one home first so she won’t (bleep) herself,” with an animosity that was chilling.
We were aghast. I had escorted Bella onto the bus every day, greeting the driver and aide with a cheery smile and a chat. I put her seatbelt on myself and kissed her goodbye. She sat alone in her seat. While it was agonizing to watch and hear those tapes, they were our “ace in the hole” to ensure a swift response from the district and the police. The monitor was charged, arrested and ultimately plead guilty to several charges, including felony charges that will follow her for the rest of her life—meaning she will never pass another criminal background check, in case she decides to apply for a job in your school district.
It may seem preposterous that I consider us lucky in light of the very real injuries Bella sustained, coupled with the mental anguish and the ingrained fear she now harbors and is unable to share with us due to her autism. But we got justice—as did the New Jersey father who strapped a recording device a la the FBI going after Tony Soprano on his young son last year, to prove that his child’s new aggression at school was being provoked by someone in the classroom. The resultant audio was a barrage of vitriol aimed at the boy by school staff, which the dad then posted publicly on YouTube and Facebook for all to hear.
What about when other children are the bullies? Kids from coast to coast, in regular ed and special ed alike, are facing the embarrassment, intimidation and fear of peer bullying. I worry especially for our kids with Asperger’s who are in the mainstream population throughout the school day. As schools have adopted zero tolerance policies to violence, a child who is goaded into a fight by bullying could face serious punishment, and might not be able to verbalize what pushed him to an altercation.
In our area last year, a little girl was so badly bullied that her parents moved across town to enroll her in another school. Moving is a pretty extreme option though, particularly since schools have systems in place to report bullying. Start by telling the teacher, with as much detail as you can (date, time, what was said or if there was physical contact) and work your way up the administration chain if need be. Remain alert, watch out for behavior changes, and make sure your district knows you won’t tolerate any aggression, verbal or physical, toward your child.
Fortunately there is good, usable information out there for parents. In March, the Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Education launched a website—Stop Bullying—that includes a section on prevention for special needs students in particular, and provides a map with detailed information on state laws and policies, interactive webisodes and videos for young people, practical strategies for schools and communities to ensure safe environments, and suggestions on how parents can talk about this sensitive subject with their children.
The National Autism Association (NAA) has a Facebook page dedicated to bullying prevention (NAA Autism Safety: Bullying and Prevention) and I encourage you to “like” this page to learn how you can prevent bullying and what to do if your own child becomes a victim.
And be heard! More of us need to stand up and scream at the top of our lungs, “You cannot harm our children and get away with it.” That means going public—like I did with Bella’s case, and like this dad in New Jersey did for his son. Your instinct is to grab your child and hug him or her and hide. But that won’t send the message that we are alert, cognizant and ready to expose anyone who harms our kids.