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Bullying: The Other Child Abuse


By Gretchen Brant

As Jack and Brent worked together on a team project for their sophomore English class, Brent cracked a few filthy jokes. At first, Jack laughed and played along. Then Brent began to make sexual comments about Jack's mother. Jack tried to ignore it, but that only seemed to make Brent try harder to get a reaction. Jack complained about Brent to the teacher's aide: "Just ignore him," she said. After three weeks of Brent's constant harassment, and no help from the adults or other kids in the classroom, Jack felt he needed to get Brent's attention. Jack reached over and yanked on the string hanging from the hood of Brent's sweatshirt. Brent stood up, took Jack's head and slammed it onto the table.

"Don't worry--because he receives special services, Jack will only get a one day in-school suspension," said Jack's special ed. teacher during the phone call to his mother.

Jack's mom was sure she had heard it wrong. "Did you say Jack gets suspended for getting his head slammed into a desk?"

"Well, yes, he was the first to make physical contact, and that's considered an attack."

Unfortunately, this is a true story*. Jack (not his real name) has Asperger's Syndrome (AS), a mild, high functioning form of Autism. He's very intelligent, and, like many people with AS, he has an area of exceptional talent or "genius", however he has difficulty understanding social situations, a hallmark symptom of Asperger's. It makes a student with AS an easy target for abusers, commonly known as "bullies".

Wear Jack's shoes for a moment and imagine that Brent is one of your co-workers. How would this same scenario be dealt with in the workplace? Or, if this were a domestic situation, what would happen if a man slammed his wife's head onto a desk?

When adults are involved, it is called physical, mental, or emotional abuse; a serious offense that has legal consequences. When children, who are less equipped to understand, process and defend themselves, are abused by peers, we have a cuter name for it: "bullying".

Considered to be the world's leading authority on bully/victim issues, Swedish psychologist Dr. Dan Olweus, has researched bullying and interventions for over 30 years. Dr. Olweus defines bullying as "systemically and chronically inflicting physical hurt and/or psychological distress on one or more students."

While work-related, domestic/partner and child abuse is being reported and prosecuted more frequently than in the past, child-on-child or school abuse--usually perpetrated on the school bus or school grounds--still seems to be dismissed as just "kids being kids."

Jack's intellect and creativity are immediately noticeable to anyone who spends more than a few minutes with him. However, his special needs aren't as apparent to others as say, a student with Down's Syndrome, or one who uses a wheelchair. While the majority of students treat classmates who have an obvious difference or "disability" with kindness and understanding, kids with AS often appear to others as the odd genius or the social misfit, not a student with a "disability".

Students with "non-obvious" special needs straddle both worlds. They are painfully aware of their social status but unsure of how to initiate and maintain a friendship. Without friends, Jack can't "practice" his social skills and have a better chance of a "real" social life. Without friends, he doesn't have a "posse" for protection and support. The majority of kids who are victims of peer abuse have a medical/psychological diagnosis and/or receive special services. They might as well wear a target on their backs.

Society often asks adult victims of domestic abuse, sexual harassment or sexual abuse to assume some responsibility for their abuser's actions: What did they do to cause the abuse and what could they have done to stop it? We ask the victim--not the abuser-- to change their behavior. In Jack's case, he tried everything he could to stop his abuser. The teacher's aide told Jack that he--not the abuser-had to change his behavior. No matter what Jack tried, he failed and the school punished him for it. What happened to Brent? Jack's parents weren't allowed to know.

According to Stan Davis, author of Schools Where Everyone Belongs: Practical Strategies to Reduce Bullying, asking a child--or even a teenager-- to do something about the bully's behavior places an unfair burden on an already traumatized student. Victims are told to ignore it, act like it's a joke, give it right back to them, change the subject, or go sit by their friends. When a special needs student is the victim of school abuse--attacked by students on one side and no friends to retreat to on the other-the social circle becomes a gauntlet, driving home the message: you are a reject.

There may be "zero tolerance" for drugs, alcohol and blatant violence, but "bullying" seems to be a matter that is handled quietly, with just the immediate parties involved, behind the principal's door. Typically, the parents of the victim become aware of the abuse, and may report it themselves or direct their student to do so. However, the parents of the "bully" are often not informed, allowing the perpetrator to get off easy-giving him a notch in his belt. Often, retaliatory abuse continues and the student victim now feels even more powerless. He has gone through the appropriate channels and yet the bully has "won" and the torment continues. Where does he go now?

School abuse can be hard to define. It can range from subtle put-downs to hazing. A naive student might be manipulated into an embarrassing situation, or be set-up and blamed for something she didn't do. A guy can be relentlessly teased until he's reduced to tears, then ridiculed for not "being a man" about it. Though student-on-student abuse occurs more frequently among boys, the abuse perpetrated by girls can be more subtle and insidious. A girl can be "shunned" and suddenly dropped by her circle of friends for no apparent reason. A vicious rumor about her is circulated around school or on-line--where it's called "cyber-bullying". In recent years, physically violent attacks--by girls, on girls--have dramatically increased.

Even teachers can be bullies. In his speech at the National Bullying Prevention conference held in Atlanta (October 2005), Dr. Olweus defined "teacher bullying" as "teachers using degrading negative comments openly about a student or students". Teachers can also silently bully by their example. The teacher of Jack's middle school Geography class-one of his strongest subjects-thought that because Jack received special services, he was "slow", so she never called on him when he raised his hand. At mid-semester school conferences, the teacher said, "I can't really tell you how Jack is doing academically, but he does return to his seat when I ask him." Jack's mom found him a new seat in a different Geography class soon after.

Teachers can also abuse their power to punish, disparage or manipulate a student. When Jack's speech therapist had to take a short medical leave, a substitute special ed teacher filled in for about a month. During a meeting with Jack and his mother, the substitute told Jack, "…if you don't do your work, I could lose my job." Jack's infuriated mom calmly asked Jack, "How does it make you feel when she says you could get her fired?"

"I feel like I'm a burden to all of my teachers," said Jack.
"Jack, you're not burden. Good teachers feel it is an honor and a privilege to have you in their class," said Jack's mom, and though that teacher didn't get fired, she no longer had the privilege of teaching Jack.

The silly, cosmetic term "bullying" becomes a travesty when it results in death. In addition to the infamous college fraternity "initiation" ceremonies, middle and high school boys and girls have died as a result of school club and sports team hazing incidents. Despondent victims turn to drugs and alcohol in an attempt to both deaden their pain and gain entry into the crowd-any crowd-and many overdose. Hopeless victims commit suicide. In the most extreme and complex cases, a victim who feels that no one has come to their aid may commit an act of final revenge and kill those who failed them; staff, students, and family members, before killing themselves.

Shortly after his in-school suspension, Jack reluctantly revealed that he had been suffering through months of verbal and emotional abuse on the school bus. The Principal was demonstratively outraged, and Jack's mom was relieved to get a reaction that nearly matched her own anger. The Principal assured her that if he couldn't find the bullies at school that day, he would drive around the city until he did, and they would catch an earful. "Riding the bus is a privilege, not a right," he said, "and if I hear of this happening one more time, you can bet they won't be riding the bus for the rest of the year…"

Jack's mother asked the Principal, "I know that--due to confidentiality-you can't really answer this, but are any of the bullies students with special needs?"

"Well, I don't know. I never thought of that."
"Maybe they're victims of bullying, too. I'd like to try to understand why they're doing this." The Principal thanked her for reminding him to slow down a little, and consider why the behavior is happening.

What makes a bully? Stan Davis, on his website, stopbullyingnow.com, helps us understand that most bullies are created, not born. They are also victims:

"Remember that bullies often come from homes where there is little warmth and parental attention, and where parents discipline inconsistently, using physical punishment and emotional outbursts. They often have little empathy or trust, and little ability to delay gratification."

Student abusers, according to Mr. Davis, need structured counseling to abate their need to abuse others. However, it's more complicated than building their self-esteem or apologizing to their victim. In fact, contrary to what one might assume, "bullies" do not suffer from low self-esteem or insecurity.

So why don't they pick on someone their own size? Olweus and others think that student abusers need power and control. They don't feel empathy for their victims; in fact they get off on seeing others suffer and be humiliated. They don't feel a lot of guilt for what they've done, perhaps because they have learned from their parents not to care. Their parents may see "need" as a sign of weakness, which is cured by discipline; any problem or weakness is met with emotional explosions and physical punishment, not empathy.

According to Dr. Olweus, "Bullying poisons the educational environment and affects the learning of every child." Victims of abuse fear their next attack. Those who have yet to be attacked watch their backs. Little "learning" can occur within a culture of fear.

Dr. Olweus prescribes that an effective bullying intervention program must place primary responsibility for ending the abuse with the adults at the school, not with the parents or students. In addition, the program must involve the entire school population, not just the abusers and their victims. It must become a permanent, integral part of the school foundation, not just a one-day workshop, or a temporary remedial fix.

Dr. Olweus has developed a systematic, school-based prevention program that has reduced incidents of school bullying by over 50% in Norway, England, Germany and in the United States. There are several websites with more information on Dr. Olweus' bully intervention program, tips on how to intervene in a bullying situation, how to identify if your child is a victim of school abuse, supportive and informative websites for student victims.

Jack's mom had to call the Principal several more times. Jack's abusers continued their abuse off and on throughout the school year, but never lost their bus privileges. Jack never received an apology from his tormentors, nor did his parents receive a call from any of the abuser's parents. Which leads Jack's mom to think that the parents of the abusers were never informed by the school of their son's constant, yearlong abuse of a child with special needs. Or, maybe they just didn't care.

*Some details have been altered slightly to protect the identity of people involved.

What you can do to be a friend, prevent school abuse and support someone who has been bullied.

To help prevent student abuse:
• Including people is the most important thing to do. Invite them to join a school club you belong to-get them involved. Sit with them at lunch or on the bus.

• Don't just be "nice" to someone--really get to know them, include them in a variety of situations, give them more than one chance. They may seem shy or awkward at first-they may not have had many social experiences--but once they feel comfortable, you can get on to having a good time.

• You may discover that you just don't click with him or her-that's normal-you don't have to make him or her your new best friend. However, you can still include them in group activities, like going to a movie or a game with bunch of your friends, or invite them to join a school club or activity.

To help stop abuse:
• If you see or hear of someone being abused, tell a teacher, guidance counselor, or the principal, immediately. You may think you're interfering, or they may say they're just joking around, but it's better to risk being wrong, than to allow it to happen again. You can make it clear to whomever you talk to that you'd like to remain anonymous. You don't have to confront the abusers to help make the abuse stop.

• Let the victim know that you care. You don't have to tell them that you reported the abuse; just let them know that you think it is going to stop soon, and that you'll stand by them.

• If the abuse continues, report it again.

• Encourage him or her to report the abuse to the school and tell their parents. Many who are abused are afraid they will get in trouble if they tell a school staff member or their parents. The abusers probably have threatened them with more and worse abuse if they tell anyone-and they likely will retaliate if they can find them alone. Let them know that you and your friends are on their side and will not let them be alone. Sit with him or her at lunch or on the bus. Ask them to join a school club or activity with you. Invite them to do something with you and your friends. It will make everyone feel great.

For students of all ages:
Reach out to students who don't seem to have many friends, especially those who may have special needs. Include them in your plans with friends; go to a party, go shopping, to a movie or the game. Or, just hang out. For some, even those in high school, it may be the first time they've been invited to anything, Having friends will make them less of a target for bullies and strengthen their confidence to stand up for themselves.

For Parents:
Many adult friendships begin when your kids get together to play sports, go to scouts, and other functions in and outside of school. However, many kids who are shy, have learning differences or special needs can't or won't be involved in those activities. This means their parents miss out on becoming friends with other parents as well. They feel as much on the outside as do their children.

There are support groups for families with special needs kids, but parents and their kids want to have friends outside of these support groups, as well. Kids want to be friends with "typical" kids-kids without disabilities or special needs, kids who aren't shy or have a health concern. And parents need a break from the cloistered world of "special needs and disabilities". It can become overwhelming when one eats, sleeps, reads and talks only about special needs, learning differences, illness, shyness--whatever their family issue is.

Invite such a family to do something, make a point of talking to families who look "new", have a child with special needs, or just seem alone when you're at school conferences, at your synagogue/church,/mosque, or other functions. Knowing the whole family is a great way to forge friendships that carry into and outside of school.

These friendships will set a good example and help your kids to see the person first, and then the "difference". It can also give you a new perspective on your own family concerns. While many of us worry about whether our child has the coolest clothes, or the highest grades, or is the star of the team, there are many families who shed tears at seemingly insignificant triumphs-like the first time their teenager rides a two-wheel bike, finally manages to wash his hair by himself, raises her hand in class, talks about something other than robot centaurs who live in a slimely gel on Planet Vomitus-or, simply begins to talk.

For Health Care Providers and School staff:
Don't segregate kids who have an IEP from their peers in mainstream classes. This reinforces the idea that kids who use a paraprofessional or teacher's aide are "less than" the rest of the class. It also identifies who are potential targets for student abusers-they don't even have to go looking for someone to abuse.

The teacher is telling the typical kids how to treat this groups of students: "They must be the retarded kids. Maybe they have something you might catch if you're too close. Don't even think about getting to know someone from that group. If that boy was your friend before, you can't sit with him any longer, because he's different." And, of course, it works the other way; the student with special needs is no longer an individual student, but a category: "I am less than the others. I can no longer associate with my old friends. I must be retarded because I need something that they don't. I'm in the group with the kids who are slow, or emotionally disturbed, or are the bad kids who don't behave, so that must mean I am, too. I won't make any new friends because I've been branded. Why would someone want to be my friend, anyway?"

Separating the students with IEP's from the typical students in a mainstream classroom is not mainstreaming at all--it's not a "…fair, equal and least restrictive environment…" It is segregation and discrimination--no different than putting blacks on one side and whites on the other.

For many health care providers and school staff, it is now routine to ask a student if they feel safe at home and at school. However, it may help to ask them if they feel "happy" as well. Ask them to tell you about their friends. Are they involved in activities, do they get invited to do things with their peers? It can help prevent student abuse from happening if you can proactively connect them with a group of kids or a club that you know will create friendships and support.

Students often don't recognize that being picked on, teased or threatened should not be tolerated and is abuse. Part of this is our fault; we dismiss it, tell them to ignore it, or say, "Everyone goes through that at your age…". It may help them to open up if you tell them about something that happened to "another student". Explain how no one should be treated like that, "…we made it stop and she was happy again." They may volunteer their own story if they know they'll get help and won't get in trouble. Ask if they have friends they see often and trust? Are they invited, or are they the ones doing all of the inviting?

Students of all ages fear getting in trouble if they tell their parents or teacher, and they may be threatened or receive more abuse for being a "snitch" or "tattle tale". For younger children, it sometimes helps if you depersonalize it: "The kid most likely to go to the principal's office is ______." Or, "If you could send anyone to jail, it would be ______". Older students may feel that they're being childish or weak if they need to get adult help. They need to know that they are being strong, self-confident and assertive. They are stopping it from happening to others, and standing up to somene who thinks they'll be too intimidated to tell. The abuser may also be being abused by a family member or a "friend". Reporting the abuser may help them out of their own abusive situation and get the counseling they need.

For everyone:
People are afraid of what they don't understand. Most everyone "has" something, or knows someone who does. See the person first, then the difference. Get to know someone who is different from you; who has a different learning style, a physical difference, or a disability. Learn about the more common diagnoses like Asperger's (AS), Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). Ask questions; most people with a -drome, an –ism, an –order, or a –bility aren't embarrassed or ashamed. They just want you to Get Over It and Get On with being friends.

More resources:
myspace.com has subject groups that talk about many topics dealing with friends, special needs, bullying, learning differences, etc.

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