Austin Avery was born prematurely and suffered developmental issues as a result. Last week, when the school called [his mother] Sharlene, she knew something was seriously wrong. “We had a call from the school to come pick him up cause he was hallucinating. I just don’t understand why your child goes to school and comes home in a drunken stupor,” says Avery. So, she put him in the car and drove to the emergency room. That’s when doctors told her something she never imagined. “The doctor said that [Austin] was way over the legal limit [for alcohol]. Now, can you imagine a 14-year-old child and what kind of damage that can do to his brain?”
The investigation yielded a report from a fellow student, who reported that bullies had been putting Germ-X, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, in Austin’s milk at lunchtime. This had been occurring regularly since January, without detection by the school or any adult in a position to discipline the bullies.
There are a couple things of note about this story. First is that it got virtually no coverage – I saw it only because I read several hip-hop gossip sites that picked the story up because the child is African-American. Other than those sites, I found absolutely no mention of it anywhere on the web other than the initial report from a local news outlet, quoted above. Intentionally poisoning a child with hand sanitizer seems like a pretty big deal to me – there could have been much more significant and detrimental side effects than alcohol intoxication, and even alcohol intoxication is dangerous enough when we’re talking about a 14 year old with developmental disabilities.
The second thing of note about this story is that Oklahoma already has an extremely robust anti-bullying law and state policy aimed at eliminating bullying. A watchdog anti-bulling group gives the Oklahoma law an A, indicating it is “near perfect” by their standards. Here is a description of their anti-bullying law:
Requires Safe School Committees to give special attention to bullying, incidents of unwanted physical or verbal aggression and sexual harassment and make recommendations. Encourages community involvement, one-on-one student/staff relationships, use of problem solving teams of counselors and/or school psychologists and requires the review of bullying prevention programs utilized by other states, agencies or school districts. Requires each school district to have policies addressing the prevention of bullying and education about bullying behavior.
So – given that all those rules, policies, requirements, and education were insufficient to stop Austin from being regularly and consistently poisoned for almost four months – how can we realistically address and stop this kind of bullying from happening? How can we provide meaningful protection for children with disabilities? Is it possible to do so through laws and regulations, or will only a long term shift in ableist attitudes be effective?