Bullying – How Can We Stop It?

Here’s another horrific story of bullying, this coming out of Dickson, Oklahoma.

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?

By 22 April, 2010.    age, disability activism, justice, news, policy, violence   



16 Comments

  1. for starters, i think we need to stop calling it “bullying” just because it involves children, and start calling it exactly what it really is — in this case, attempted murder. in other cases, “bullying” is used to cover up sexual assault and sexual harassment, assault and battery, and other serious crimes. calling it “bullying” allows people to evade the reality that teens and younger children (in particular, their teens or children) are committing crimes.

  2. It is the attitude that people with disabilities are less than human that makes this sort of thing possible. This was a hate crime, and I hope it is treated as such.

  3. Politicalguineapig

    Gods, this is horrendous. As a bullied child, I always applaud anti-bullying laws, but there’s no realistic way to stop kids from bullying other kids. Children are always going to be nasty to one another-that’s a given. The only realistic way to get a handle on it is to have really small classes, small recesses and extensively supervised lunches. (Instead of releasing all the children onto the playground at one time, or having all the children lunch together, only allow 10 or so on the playground or in the cafeteria at one time.) It seems draconian, but it’s the only solution I can suggest.

  4. How can we stop it? How about by prosecuting the poisoners?

  5. Most anti-bullying laws, in practice, are used after something horrible happens to the victim. You know, locking the barn door after the horse bolted.

    That is just… I gasped when I read about the crime. WHY?! I want to ask these kids what they were thinking. (No, I can picture it. “We thought it would be funny. And he never complained.”)

    Anyways, they never EVER listen to you when you say so-and-so is bullying me, no matter what the policy says. And then they hurt you PHYSICALLY and the school admin says, “We have a zero tolerance policy towards bullies. I don’t know why Victim didn’t come to us.”

    And how can the story even get worse? The fact that it wasn’t picked up. They were POISONING a fellow classmate and it’s not blared all over the news? Race or disability (and maybe gender?) may have played a part – he’s not a pretty blonde white girl.

  6. IME, when it comes to bullying, while the staff may care, and even be aware something is going on, that doesn’t mean they’re actually in a position to DO anything.

    As to the story itself…I can’t find the words. Even profanity seems like an understatement. There’s harassing someone, and then there’s putting CLEANING PRODUCTS in their FOOD.

  7. Politicalguineapig

    Kaitlyn: That’s been my experience too. I had to change classes for 2nd grade (school put grades 1,2 and 3 together which was a horrible idea.) And I eventually ended up transferring schools altogether.
    First teacher didn’t care- we eventually had to involve the principal and she didn’t care much either, so I’m really skeptical about the assertion that the staff CARES. Hah. Most of them in the public schools are just marking time ’till the kids can be released into the wild. In all fairness, private schools are more or less a crapshoot, I just got lucky.
    I don’t know if the kids should be jailed at this age- expelling them from the district and having them serve a bit of time when they reach eighteen might be better.

  8. I don’t think you can prevent it completely, but with proper supervision, it can be eased. Teachers/counselors/staff have to be on the lookout for bullying and step in the moment they see it. Victims need to know if they report bullying, action will be taken. Bullies need to know that punishment will be swift and harsh. However, having worked as a counselor, I have to say, the best way to reduce bullying is smaller class and group sizes. It is impossible for a teacher to properly supervise 30-35 kids. It is impossible for them to know those kids well enough to notice who is being maltreated by classmates. They can try, but they will miss stuff. So better funding of schools and reducing class sizes may be the most effective way to stop bullying.

    KJ

  9. KJ – it’s so sad how many issues discussed on this site come down to a lack of funding, no matter where the issue takes place.

    Of course, it’s also an issue about who gets the money – does the school help victims of bullying, PWD (students and/or teachers), or get new football uniforms?

  10. One problem is in a lot of zero tolerance for bullying situations the bullies will provoke a kid into lashing out and then the target gets labeled the bully. Or many similar scenarios.

    The other problem is lots of adults were bullies as children and never grew out of it. Several adults like that actually helped the other kids bully me and some openly would say I was disgusting and otherwise inhuman.
    .-= Amanda´s last blog ..Prism lenses =-.

  11. Politicalguineapig

    1. In my experience bullies don’t usually pick on students in the classroom. They save it for recess and lunch.
    2. If they got rid of the sports teams, that would solve a lot of the problems, especially in high school settings.

  12. Kids always try to bully other kids, but it’s the tolerance from adults that lets it get to these levels. No law is going to matter when there is no-one who cares to enforce it, and the kudos are for the appearance of anti-bullying rather than the practice of making sure it happens as little as possible and is punished when it does. This is not to say that the adults in question are evil people – often there are teacher/student ratio issues which make adequate supervision impossible, among other problems. But complacency does matter.

  13. Stop telling the victims that “kids are just that way”. Stop telling them that “it’s because you are different”. Stop pretending that psychological harrassment doesn’t hurt. Stop trying to look the other way. Stop pretending that, just because you did the same horrible crap when you were a student, it is ok for those kids, because they will “grow out of it”. Just stop making freaking excuses.

    (All of this is related to reactions I got in response to bullying that never crossed the line into the physical. I don’t know if they would have still said this in that case. And I am beyond greatful that I never had to find out. BUt what I got was bad enough.)

  14. Lauren – you left out an excuse – “I survived it, so can you.”

    And – “life isn’t fair” and “the real world is worse”

    So as a grown-up bigger girls will run up and take my glasses?

  15. lauren: Don’t forget “ignore them and they’ll stop”.

    That and “High school is the best time of your life” are my personal pet peeves. If I’d believed the second one, I probably would’ve killed myself. (Thankfully, I didn’t and it wasn’t)

  16. I have no idea how to stop bullying.
    Thanks to lauren, Kaitlyn and Jayn for that great list of the stupid things adults tell kids. I personally hated the ignore it and it will go away. I’d also like to add “if you don’t run they can’t chase you” because having your underwear pulled down on the playground is so much better than being chased.
    I also agree w/KG that victims need to know action will be taken. I only “tattled” three times during gradeschool and felt no need to report any of the other instances becuase those three times only resualted in worse situations.
    Amanda makes a good point that the child who has been provoked into acting out gets the bully label. I was often labeled as a bully and a problem child in grade school becuase all the teachers could see was me pushing the girl who spent to class periods making faces at me; me squezing the girl who made fun of the way I spoke; or me lunging towards the girl who made fun of me for running too slow.
    When I became a day care teacher, the other teachers use to tell me to stop wasting my time when I tried to understand the root cause of kids fights.