More than Just
“Stay Away From the Bully”
“You shouldn’t have made the team,” the bully says to the girl with hearing aids. “You can’t even get a boyfriend.” The bully and her posse made fun of her signing and whispered, looking and laughing at the girl in the locker room.
And the wounded girl did the right thing. She texted her mom, who encouraged her to tell her coach, and the coach did the right things. He listened and comforted the girl, and took action with the bully and kept watch over the rest of the season, even looking for ways to get the two girls to see each other as fellow humans, not as bully and victim. The mom congratulated the girl for her courage, and told her that she might have changed the life of this bully, and for sure she kept other kids safe from being harassed.
Bullying, by legal definition, is an intentional aggressive behavior that involves an imbalance of power or strength and is repeated over time. That behavior can be physical, emotional, sexual, verbal or non-verbal. Emotional or non-verbal bullying includes rejection, extortion, defamation, humiliation, blackmail, manipulation of friends, isolation, and peer pressure. (See Stop Bullying or Start Paying, a presentation by Darcy Kriha, referenced below.)
How do we raise a child who can stand up for themselves, who can say “no” to a bully or tell and keep telling until they get help? How do we create a culture at home or at school so that bullying is not swept under the rug?
Self-Advocacy: A Skill to Cultivate
It starts well before a parent might think it does; this ability for kids to speak up for what they need to strangers, to adults in positions of power, to their own peers, and to the rest of the world around them. A strong sense of self makes it possible for a child gathering courage to take a stand, whether that stand is “I need captions on the film in science,” or “no, I am not stealing from the Walgreens store with you.” A teenager doesn’t wake up one day with that strong sense of self, but instead makes baby steps through childhood--from trusting that parents will comfort and feed us when we are toddlers to learning that one can make a mistake playing with a candle at age six, live through the parent’s correction, and still feel loved. For kids with hearing loss, that sense of self, and knowing one’s strengths and weaknesses, also means learning about what helps them and what doesn’t help them access information, and to be comfortable in their own skin in a world full of us “hearies”. When a child does ask for help or otherwise speaks up on his or her own behalf, parents and teachers can ensure that a child will risk asking another time through celebrating the act of courage (even if it was a bad choice—that’s how we learn!) Imagine the courage it takes to tell a school counselor that you just can’t understand the math teacher with the accent. Any small step toward the larger goal of a child who knows his or her strengths and needs, and knows who, how, and when to ask for assistance is a step toward victory.
The terrible news about asking for help, in particular, is that it doesn’t guarantee a child will get help. A child may not be believed, may be dismissed, and may even be ridiculed when making their request. Parents might even be the ones dismissing a child’s painful experience. A middle school student in Colorado recently sought help about a school bully, and was greeted with “How do we know YOU are not the bully?” at the IEP table. This student and her mom learned that speaking up once is not enough. It took multiple times going to bat for a child’s safety and well-being in a school culture that tends to turns its back on difficult issues.
Bullying at School: Can be a Denial of FAPE
A school’s duty regarding bullying is becoming more clear as cases come before the courts. Liability is limited to "did the school know, did they take action, and did they communicate it to the parents and the student" per Darcy Kriha, an attorney speaking at the 2010 Special Education Legal Conference in Colorado. She noted that no school can keep a child safe from every incident, but that the awareness and response to bullying must be proactive and thorough. Liability hinges on whether the school responded to reports of bullying, whether they conducted a prompt investigation, talking to the victim, the bully, and any witnesses, and communicated what is found. Bullying related to a child’s disability can be a denial of a child’s right to a Free and Appropriate Public Education under an IEP--or a denial of FAPE. Bullying/harassment is also prohibited based on disability under Section 504 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Bullying at school (or online by classmates) creates a hostile environment where a child can’t fully participate or receive the benefits of education in a district’s program. Complaints can be made through the IDEA dispute resolution process or the Office of Civil Rights.
The Office of Civil Rights (OCR) website states the school’s responsibility even more strongly, and even discounts the importance of whether a child actually came forward with a complaint: If harassment has occurred, a school must take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end the harassment, eliminate any hostile environment, and prevent its recurrence. These duties are a school’s responsibility even if the misconduct also is covered by an anti-bullying policy and regardless of whether the student makes a complaint, asks the school to take action, or identifies the harassment as a form of discrimination.
Parents are a child’s first teachers in discriminating what behavior in others is acceptable and what is not. Some actions cross the line; a big brother tickling might be okay, but when the younger sibling has had enough of it, he or she should be encouraged to say no, and the older child be compelled to honor that refusal. No child should be made to feel inferior because of a disability; that is clear. Research shows that bullies prey on the easy victims: the child who has less developed social skills, difficulty communicating, especially under stress, has fewer friends, is not involved in extracurricular activities and avoids being noticed or being assertive. Parents can bolster a child’s confidence in all these areas with modeling, practice, encouragement, and lots of opportunities to grow skills in the safer environment among friends, neighbors, and frequent places visited. Parents can teach their kids the meaning of the concept “bribe” or “sarcasm” or “peer pressure” as a way of preparing kids for the big world out there, which isn’t always a beautiful world. No parents want to wait until a problem gets so big that court action is a next step, but policies and regulations made necessary by other parents taking legal action has brought a sense of new interest in attending to building a proactive and responsive culture at school.
How Do We Respond?
A terrific storyteller and clinician, Rebecca Branstetter, writes in her Blog “Notes from a School Psychologist” about an incident that inspired her to rethink how schools respond to a child’s courageous act to report bullying. She tells her story of an encounter with a bully (see sidebar). Her assertion that most of our actions relate to sort of a “blaming the victim stance” is troublesome. Life is full of conflict, and neither parents nor schools can keep a child safe from all directions, nor should they keep a child in a safety bubble. Of course a child should learn to stand up for herself, say “no” to bullies, and ‘toughen up” in the words of my eighteen year old son. A child can learn quite a few strategies to employ before telling an adult, and any of these actions can potentially stop a bullying incident from becoming a pattern. Indeed, the very act of “telling”, if handled incorrectly by schools, can make a problem worse for a child. The student looks like a “rat” to the bully and his entourage. In light of the likelihood of bullying (or even the risk of abuse, which is three times higher for kids with hearing loss than the general population) in a child’s life, parents can also make sure a child learns safety skills and defenses to better protect themselves. See the Kidpower website for excellent resources and classes on this topic, including how to walk with awareness and confidence, possible responses to teasing, how to walk confidently away from a bully without making the situation worse, and more. Schools can create a culture that doesn’t tolerate bullying through the careful observation of behavior, actively looking and listening for incidents, and fully investigating and acting on each one.
What about the bystanders? Encouraging other children to intervene rather than just passively watch a bully continue is a worthwhile endeavor, and could also stop a bullying incident from repeating. In the response to bullying, school policies should also address the bully or bullies themselves. A school who gets the facts of the bullying right, attempts to pinpoint the many causes, and takes action to prevent future problems, whether that be classroom instruction, more supervision at recess, listening to children and planning for change with parents is a school that will build a safe environment where learning can actually happen.
References and resources:
What Parents Need to Know Series: Self Advocacy for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Students, www.handsandvoices.org
Stop Bullying or Start Paying, Darcy Kriha, Presentation at the Colorado Department of Education Legal Conference, 2010.
Office of Civil Rights website: www.ed.gov
Kidpower safety classes and resources for all ages, www.kidpower.org
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