When do you take bullying seriously?

Rachel McCumber

Daniel was tense all afternoon, last Tuesday. At first, I thought it was because he had struggled with his morning routine that morning, leaving the house without a shower or lunch. However, that evening as he stood in the kitchen making the next day’s lunch, he burst out in angry tears.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me today. Everything is upsetting me and I just feel like crying!” he exclaimed.

I paused my piano playing to turn towards the kitchen.

“Don’t worry Daniel, in the grand scheme of life, a missed shower and lunch isn’t a game changer.” I reassured him.

“It’s not that!” he replied quietly, “Nobody likes me. They think I am weird.”

I waited. He seemed to be struggling, so I walked over to the kitchen and asked him, “What do they say?”

“That I am gay. That I have a PSP.” he blushed.

“What is a PSP?” I asked.

“A pretty small penis.”

I was instantly angry and stifling a laugh.

“Who says this? Is it just words or more?”

Slowly, painfully the story came out. A boy in Daniel’s math class had been verbally bullying Daniel daily. He would say that Daniel was gay, that he wanted to suck on guys’ penis (I was SHOCKED by the graphic nature of this 6th grade child’s lanuage) and played footsies with other boys. When the teacher stepped out of the room, this boy would kick Daniel in the shins or hit him. The physical attacks had happened 4 to 5 times. The PSP comments were coming from another ESE student in Daniel’s Learning Strategies class.

I immediately assured Daniel that this kind of behavior had no reflection on him.

“A bully doesn’t bully because of the person he is hurting. He or she bullies because of how they feel about themselves and their own lives.” I explained.

“But I am weird,” was Daniel’s replied, his head bowed.

“I know… and right now, your whole world is that middle school. However, there are 6+ billion people in the world and only about 2500 in your school. that means that your school is less then .0001% of the population out there. Some day you will leave that school and your weirdness is going to be what makes you stand out – in a good way. You will find people who appreciate your weirdness and see that your uniqueness is pretty cool. You might even find some people who like your weirdness right not. ” I explained.

“How do you know? he asked.

“Because, I was the weird girl.” I replied.

“You’re not weird!” Daniel exclaimed.

“Oh! Sweetie! Yes I am. I am weird in a lot of the same ways you are weird.” I laughed.

“Oh, well that explains why it didn’t seem weird to me.” Daniel smiled.

It was good to see that smile.

“We are going to deal with this immediately.” I promised him, “In the meantime, talk to your teacher if it gets physical again and ignore the words as much as possible because they don’t reflect on you, but rather on the boy saying them. More then anything, know that we all love you and like you a lot.”

“What is going on?” Robert asked walking into the room.

“Oh, I have been experiencing some bullying, Daniel explained. He already seemed calmer, reassured.

I could see the hair stand up on the back of Robert’s neck. “Punch the kid in the nose, kick him in the nuts and he will leave you alone!” Robert replied angrily.

“No!” I squashed that idea, “We will deal with it Robert.”

The immediate reaction of all the men in the house was an almost physical push back. However, in first grade, Daniel would flip desks when he was frustrated by the boy tapping on the desk next to him. He has come such a long way learning to control his emotions and frustrations. I don’t want him to loose that progress because of a 6th grade bully. I need another way to give him the power back in the situation.

My first instinct was to email Daniel’s teacher, hoping that they could handle the situation quickly and quietly. I think that having a special needs child who attracts so much attention anyway, it is tempting to try to take the quiet way out whenever possible. However, a conversation with my husband and step-father, a former principal and superintendent in the Los Angeles school district, changed my mind.

My primary concern was to end the bullying and give Daniel both present relief and reassurance of a non-physical path to resolution of any future incidents. I first sent an email to his teacher, cc-ing the Principal to put them on notice. I heard nothing that evening.

The next morning, my husband and I went down to the school. The Principal was in a district meeting so we spoke to the Assistant Principal Mr. Gil******. We relayed Daniel’s story. Not surprisingly, the boy from Daniel’s science class was well known to the office. We explained that Daniel could not remember the name of the second child, the boy from Daniel’s Learning Strategies class. The Asst. Principal assured us that the administration would be speaking with Daniel and the boys involved separately. The school’s procedure was to give the offenders a 3 day suspension and recommend “alternative school placement” for any future offenses.

“We are not concerned that Daniel will be beat up,” my husband explained,”He is tall and can hold his own physically. He was flipping desks in first grade.”

This is when I really love my husband. He is able to summarize my concerns so clearly and succinctly. Without being apologetic for Daniel’s struggles he explained that we were concerned is that if the school was unable to effectively provide the relief required in this situation, Daniel might feel forced into a position where his only option was to defend himself physically. We could guarantee that Daniel melting down in this way would end the bullying but not in a way that would be beneficial to anyone. Additionally, such a scenario could place our child at risk of being placed into a program for emotionally handicapped. We felt that would be highly unfair given the situation and the past progress Daniel has made.

We left assured that the situation would be handled promptly and with a promise of a phone call from the Principal. I received the call from the Principal an hour later. She apologized that she was unable to meet with us. They were speaking to the boys involved at that moment. They felt, based on their conversation with Daniel that he would feel comfortable coming to them in the future. I thanked her for her time and promised to contact her again if there was any additional problems.

Later that day, Daniel came home and told me that the boys in question had been suspended for 3 days. He would not see them the rest of the week. He seemed back to his normal self. I explained to him that nearly every person out there has a story of being bullied. Even though it is commonplace, it isn’t right. I didn’t want him to feel particularly singled out. Everyone has the experience of being the person singled out by the bully at some point in time. Again, I reaffirmed that bullying occurs because of how the bully feels about themselves and the victim is usually just the wrong person at the wrong place at the wrong time.

Even though the Principal had instructed me to call rather then email her for future communications, I sent the following email to confirm the conversations we had with the administration. I do this both as a way to maintain a written record of the events and because I find that I communicate more effectively in writing:

Dear [Principal] and Mr. Gil******,

Thank you for taking the time to meet with us last Thursday. As we stated during our conference and in our previous telephone conversation, we are extremely concerned and disturbed by the emotional and physical bullying and abuse our son, Daniel ******** has been subjected to while in school.

As we explained, Daniel has been suffering at the hands of both [boy from the math class], from his 6th period math class and an unnamed boy from his Science class. The bullying has included verbal teasing – telling Daniel he is gay, that he wanted to have gay sex with men, plays footsies with other boys and has a PSP (comments about his genitalia). However, it has also included 5 or more instances of physical assault during which [boy from the math class] kicked and hit Daniel when the teacher was out of the room.

We came away from the meeting, hopeful that the situation with the bullying that our son has been experiencing will be immediately resolved.

You both assured us that you would speak to Daniel and interview the children involved. We were assured that the children’s parents would be notified and that there would be disciplinary action taken in the form of a suspension. It was explained to us that, there will be further steps taken to ensure Daniel is protected and that, if necessary, you would make an alternate school placement for the children involved. We expect that this will be handled by the administration in a manner that will prevent any retribution against our son by these or other children. We do not want Daniel put in a position where his only option is to physically defend himself. However, you can’t expect him to continually submit to abuse.

The school has both a moral and legal obligation to make sure this bullying stops now. We know that learning cannot take place in an environment of intimidation and fear, and this is especially true for Daniel as a special needs student.

We also conveyed to you that we are disturbed at the sexual nature of the teasing. The negative connotations regarding homosexuality create a frightening and oppressive environment for any of your students who may be homosexual or who are questioning their sexuality.

Daniel came home Friday and told me that he had spoken to Mr. Gil*****. He said that the boy from his science class’s name is D****. He said that you had explained that he can come to you immediately if there are any further problems. He seemed reassured. He also said that both D**** and [boy from the math class] had been suspended.

Thank you for your assistance. We will be watching this week to see how the situation progresses once [boy from the math class] and D**** return to school. We will keep the lines of communication open with Daniel and will let you know if we hear of anything further. If you have any questions, please let us know.


Rachel and Scott *******

Looking back, I don’t know if I would have done anything differently. I realize that the bullying Daniel was subjected to was not as severe as other cases out there. I am thankful for that.

I don’t know if this is the same way I would have handled the situation if it had been one of my more Nuerotypical children. I don’t think that as a parent I could know exactly how I would handle this situation until it happens. I have to evaluate the situation on a child by child basis. All of my children react differently and have different strength. It would also depend on the type and severity of the bullying.

The guidelines for me are as follows:

– Respond promptly. The longer the child has to handle this on their own, the more difficult and messy it gets.

– Reassure the child of their worth. Give them a context for the bullying. Remind them that the bullying isn’t about them as much as the insecurities and weakness of the bully, possibly the pain the bully is experiencing in their own life. This takes away the validity of the bully’s mocking. Then remind them again of how their uniqueness makes them amazing. I have found it is helpful to give specific examples so it doesn’t sound like I am just saying nice things.

– Involve the child in the resolution. I explained to Daniel what steps I was going to take and why it was best for me to handle that part. Then I gave him steps he could take. The most damaging aspect of bullying is the powerlessness. Since Responsibility = Power, when I give Daniel something he is responsible for he is empowered.

– Follow through. Memorialize everything in writing, even if it is just to summarize and confirm a conversation. It is hard to say, I don’t remember talking about ____ when there is a written record. Remember these buzz words:

1. Learning environment: the school has a legal obligation to make sure that there is an environment where a child feels safe and allows for learning to take place.
2. Concern, disturbed: This relays my upset without sounding like an overly-emotional mother. I have found it helpful to sound like you have a lot of emotional force behind what you are saying but to say it in a way that is almost formal. It is a reminder that I am in control of my emotions. Dramatic words should be used sparingly in order to increase the effectiveness.
3. Abuse or Assault: here is the dramatic words to use. If I have kept my statements very business-like and formal until the moment I use these words, they will powerfully convey how seriously I take the situation. Abuse and Assault are both criminally actionable offenses. Although I may not be at the point where I am involving the legal authorities, it reminds the school the serious nature of the actions transpiring on their campus and that while they are the authority at the school, there is a higher authority that I can appeal to if they fail to adequately handle the situation. Abuse can be used for verbal threats, teasing, etc. Assault, I reserve for anything physical.

– Be gracious, calm, cool and collected. I try to channel Jackie O when dealing with these situation. Serious and stern when required but smiling politely when able. Calm even voice at first. I can always raise my voice for impact if required. Be reasonable in my approach but firm in my expectations.

Courtesy of AspergerMom

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