One of the most painful chapters in my life was when my young son, Alex, was being bullied – mostly at school but it also happened at Sunday School on occasion. His eccentricities, inappropriate remarks, rigid rule following and lack of social understanding were all catalysts for teasing and taunting by other children — sometimes in subtle form and sometimes in more flagrant acts involving emotional and physical violation. He was called names, his book bag dumped on the floor, his lunch tray knocked out of his hands, his drumsticks broken, and his papers torn. He was pushed, tripped, laughed at, excluded and even punched and kicked.
On one occasion in middle school, my son was hit, kicked and slapped by another student while in the classroom with the teacher present. The teacher’s back was to the students and when he caught the interaction out of the corner of his eye, he sent both my son and the offender to the principal’s office for punishment. After interrogating everyone, including the other classmates, the truth came to light. Afterwards, safe at home, Alex was confused as to why he had been sent to the principal’s office and “treated like a criminal” (his words). I could understand his feeling but was trying to be calm and help Alex understand what had happened as well as to understand the whole situation myself. Alex described the incident:
The class was standing in a semicircle while the teacher was at the chalkboard writing and with his back turned toward the students. The abuser was standing beside Alex and for no apparent reason reached out and punched him in the ribs. Alex did not cry out or call attention to himself but rather moved away from his attacker. The classmate followed him and this time slapped him in the back of the head. Again Alex was quiet and simply removed himself from reach. However, as before the other student moved near him and kicked Alex in the back of his legs. This silent attack continued happening as Alex moved himself around the semicircle. Alex was kicked, punched, and slapped repeatedly until he eventually moved into a position where the teacher could see the assault out of the corner of his eye. Not a single student had done anything to intervene – fearing they would then become the next victim. When the teacher caught a glimpse of the interaction he sent both Alex and the offending student to the office to let the principal sort out the details. I asked Alex why he didn’t hit the kid back to which he replied, “It is against the rules to hit other students.”
I was taken aback by his matter-of-fact recitation of obvious school rules. I was also angry at the whole situation. I am ashamed to say that I shouted, “What were you thinking when this kid was punching and kicking and slapping you?”
Alex responded in a dull voice, “I was wishing I had a light saber so I could cut off both his arms.” Huh??? Needless to say, I was as stunned by Alex’s words as I was by his reaction to the bully. I felt helpless and heartsick.
To make matters worse Alex’s teacher then phoned me to discuss “victimization” and advised me that my son should learn to make eye contact and carry himself in a more assertive way to avoid future attacks. I was insulted and furious that it seemed my son was being blamed for incensing the bully. After that terrible incident, my husband and I discussed at length what we should do. Alex begged to be homeschooled and we certainly considered that option but it seemed impossible. We talked about other school alternatives but Alex objected to any school at all. Summer was coming and we proposed to Alex that if he could show us that he could manage a homeschool environment during the summer then we might allow it as a permanent solution.
One of my first assignments for Alex was to read the newspaper everyday. He was to find an article that he found of particular interest and bring it to the dinner table every evening for discussion. This turned out to be quite a successful exercise as it provided Alex various topics of conversation rather than sitting in silence or his reciting a mountain of facts about dinosaurs, reptiles, or insects. One evening Alex did not bring a news item to the dinner table and I asked him why. He offered his most often used excuse “I do not know” (which I knew he would continue to offer repeatedly). Having heard this often, I was well aware that I was hitting a brick wall so I just let it go. Later at bedtime I found an article that Alex had cut out of the newspaper laying on my pillow. It was an account of a middle school student who had committed suicide after a bullying incident at school. I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach and knew deep down that Alex was trying to tell me something. I took the article and went directly into Alex’s room. In not one of my finer moments as a parent, I did not handle the interrogation well and Alex shut down. Eventually, I calmed myself as best I could and softly asked, “Alex, do you know how this boy felt?”
He replied, “yes.” I wanted to weep but I kept my composure and tried to hug Alex because I needed to hug Alex. He did not need to hug me. He responded as he often did – stiffly allowing me to put my arms around him – for my own comfort, certainly not his. I returned to my room, showed the article to my husband, and told him what I had learned. Tears came along with our firm decision to homeschool our son. We felt we had no other choice.
So, for a time, we homeschooled Alex and the adventure went relatively well with the assistance of his grandparents as well as other people in our community. During this time Alex was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, which explained a great many things. Along with the diagnosis we, as parents, received training in how to better relate to our son and he learned to better understand the world he lived in. We also came to recognize that homeschooling Alex was denying him the social interaction he needed in order to learn appropriate social skills.
Despite Alex’s dread and our reluctance, we returned him to public school but with great care for his safety. We used his IEP (Individualized Education Program) to denote “safe places” and structure to his day to avoid times and places that had previously been a problem. These measures made his high school years less stressful and more positive.
A few years after our son graduated from high school an anti-bullying bill was introduced in the NC State Legislature. Needless to say, I was a strong proponent and, gratefully, so was the Autism Society of NC. I wrote a letter to my district representative describing our painful journey. This sympathetic legislator kept my letter in his breast pocket and read it on the floor of the House before the final vote on this bill. I don’t know if it touched or changed anyone’s heart but, for me, it underscored the value of speaking out against wrong.
In 2009 the state of NC passed The School Violence Prevention Act. This law specifically prohibits bullying and harassing behavior – written, electronic, verbal or physical. The law applies to every student and school employee but specifically mentions students with developmental or sensory disabilities as a protected group. The School Violence Prevention Act requires every school district in NC to implement an anti-bullying policy that includes:
- A statement prohibiting bullying or harassing behavior.
- A definition of bullying or harassing behavior no less inclusive than that set forth in the law
- A description of the type of behavior expected for each student and school employee.
- Consequences and appropriate remedial action for a person who commits an act of bullying or harassment.
- A procedure for reporting an act of bullying or harassment, including a provision that permits a person to report such an act anonymously. (This does not mean that formal disciplinary action will be permitted solely on the basis of an anonymous report.)
- A procedure for prompt investigation of reports of serious violation and complaints of any act of bullying or harassment, identifying either the principal or the principal’s designee as the person responsible for the investigation.
- A statement that prohibits reprisal or retaliation against any person who reports an act of bullying or harassment, and the consequence and appropriate remedial action for a person who engages in reprisal or retaliation.
- A statement of how the policy is to be disseminated and publicized, including notice that the policy applies to participation in school-sponsored functions.
This law cannot undo the awful things that happened to my son but I have been optimistic that it would make a difference for the children who have inherited its mandate. If nothing else the School Violence Prevention Act has acknowledged that bullying exists and points school staff in the right direction. Hopefully, this law will lead to a change in our culture – one where the entire community is involved in bullying prevention; where children are taught what behavior is expected and appropriate; where no one stands by as a silent witness without intervening; where adults promote kindness and respect for everyone. Sadly, the recent suicide at a local middle school suggests to me that we still have a long way to go. A law can only do so much – real change happens in people’s hearts.