I can’t tell you how many parents of children with special needs tell me that their child has no friends and the school seems uninterested in helping to facilitate any meaningful social interaction. The reality is that many of our kids are actually being bullied, isolated, teased, or otherwise abused and do not have the ability to either recognize the problem or, if they do know what is happening, to do anything to stop it. From my file called “learned it the hard way”, I hope today to share with you some important information about hate motivated behavior.
Hate motivated behavior?
Yep, this is another circumstance where the label is important.
I could have just continued on here, talking about bullying and how to deal with it but the reality is, as many parents of victims of bullying know, if you report bullying, rarely does anything change. Schools tell you that they are “zero tolerance” and that bullying is absolutely prohibited on their campus. Those are not very comforting words to the kid who just told you that he is regularly called the “F-word” (it rhymes with maggot) in the locker room while other kids laugh and the PE coach sits at his desk checking his Facebook status. When was the last time you heard about a school expelling some kid for bullying? It simply doesn’t happen yet anyone who is employed, and has gone through sexual harassment training at their office, understands that zero-tolerance would actually mean that anyone who did harass, would be fired. So, bullies should then be expelled, right?
It doesn’t happen.
The reality is that schools and teachers are as guilty as many parents in poo-pooing bullying. Oh, publicly they decry bullying, but they knowingly or unwittingly tolerate it every day. Many adults believe that bullying is a rite of passage, and that kids simply need to learn to toughen up or to talk down their abuser. Teachers witness name-calling every day and never do anything. They don’t realize the pain it causes to the child without the power and think that if they simply say “quit it”, that they have done their job. But, the minute that the teacher tells the bully to “quit it” and does not refer that child for discipline, the message to the bully is clear: “Got away with it again”. Worse yet, is the message to the victim: “This behavior is not bullying because, we are a zero tolerance school and we just tolerated it – so, since we did not report it and are tolerating it, this is not bullying so suck it up, kid.”
So, we need to change the views of adults in order to help the children. And, this is often a very difficult road to travel because the minute you start trying to tell adults to change, to report, to do something different, they get very defensive. School administrators think you are accusing them of negligence or that changing their policies or procedures would be an admission that what they have done in the past was wrong.
So, in order to change behavior, let’s change what we are talking about. It isn’t bullying – it is hate motivated behavior. Hate motivated behavior is any act or statement motivated by hostility towards a victim’s actual or perceived race, ethnicity, national origin, religious belief, age, disability, or any other physical or cultural characteristic… in other words: Bullying, Harassment and Name Calling. The most prevalent form of hate behavior on campuses right now is “gay bashing” – calling students gay, diva, queer or worse, using the “F-word”. Much gay bashing is unrelated to actual sexual orientation but rather is used by kids to exercise dominion and control over a weaker student. Many kids who have disabilities are victims of gay bashing. Kids “smell” that these children are different and that somehow justifies gay bashing. Some of the victims have social skills and/or pragmatic language deficits secondary to their primary disability (e.g. Aspergers) and are targeted because of their weakness. It doesn’t really matter WHY it occurs, it is hurtful and hateful and must be stopped.
Reporting gay bashing as bullying or name-calling often gets no results. Calling it what it actually is – hate motivated behavior – may result in increased scrutiny. There are different rules for hate motivated behavior in many states; schools often have different policies for hate motivated behavior or sexual harassment that are more victim friendly than bullying policies.
Before we look at some specifics of what to do or how to do it, let’s look at the problem. Bullying, harassment or hate motivated behavior (whatever you call it), is the most under-reported safety problem on American school campuses. Most students do not report bullying and harassment to adults. As a result, teachers and administrators may underestimate the extent of the problem in their school and may be able to identify only a portion of the actual bullies. Studies also suggest that children do not believe that most teachers intervene when told about bullying and harassment.
If the victims are as miserable as the research suggests, why don’t they appeal for help. One reason may be that “historically, adult’s responses have been so disappointing”. In a survey of American middle and high school students, “66% of victims of bullying believed school professionals responded poorly to the bullying/harassment problems that they observed.
So, why don’t victims report their abusers? I can tell you from personal experience that each of the following reasons, which are supported in the research, all come into play when students are abused:
Fear of Retaliation
Feeling shame at not being able to stand up for themselves
Fear that they would not be believed
Not wanting to worry their parents
Having no confidence that reporting would change anything
Thinking that telling parents or teachers would make the problem worse
Fearing that teachers would tell the bully who reported them
Thinking it is worse to be thought of as a snitch
So, if your child won’t tell you up front that they are being abused, what can you do? Figuring out if your child is being bullied is easier said than done. Remember, victims frequently do not report. When they do finally report, you may find out that the abuse had been on going, long standing, and bad things have already happened. So, here are a few signs to look for that may signal that your child is being victimized:
Has few, if any friends
Seems afraid of going to school, feigns illness, has unexplained tardies
Change in grades, attentiveness to work, completing homework
Appears sad, moody, depressed when he/she comes home from school
Has trouble sleeping
Loss of appetite
Suffers from low self esteem
Lashes out, hits, or seems abusive to someone smaller/younger
You would think many of these might alert a parent to a problem but the reality is that many of these go unrecognized or are not otherwise known. When I finally learned that my own son was being bullied in his first period PE class, I discovered a number of tardies to that class. The school did not tell me as they did not yet total 10, which was the “parent needs to know number”. My school now has computerized attendance that I can check on line every day. If you don’t regularly check on these types of available resources, you should. Even if your child is not being bullied, wouldn’t you prefer to know earlier rather than later if your child is recurrently tardy to one class?
Obviously, not all of these signs may be present or, if they are, you may not appreciate the significance of them if they do exist. Thus, a little sleuthing is always a good idea. If you do not monitor your child's computer history, you probably should. You never know what you might find – the answers to questions that they cannot ask you or some other adult: “How do I stop bullying”, “why am I bullied”, or, if they are being gay-bashed, research trails such as “how do I know if I am gay”. These are all things that may signal a very troubled child and result in some direct questioning. If you don’t have this type of history, you should start the dialogue if you see some warning signs.
Talking to your child may be difficult. You do not want them to be ashamed or afraid.
Some Direct Questions:
"I’m worried about you. Are there any kids at school who may be picking on you or bullying you?"
"Are there any kids at school who tease you in a mean way?"
"Are there any kids at school who leave you out or exclude you on purpose?"
Some subtle questions:
"Do you have any special friends at school this year? Who are they? Who do you hang out with?"
"Who do you sit with at lunch and on the bus?"
"Are there any kids at school who you really don’t like? Why don’t you like them? Do they ever pick on you or leave you out of things?"
Teachers should be a good source of information but often they do not have any direct information. They may not go out at recess, are not in the gym or locker room during PE, do not take “lunch duty”, and thus may not see what is actually happening to your child. You should still talk to them. Consider these types of questions:
"How does my child get along with other students in his or her class?"
"With whom does he or she spend free time?"
"Have you noticed or have you ever suspected that my child is bullied by other students?" Give examples of some ways that children can be bullied to be sure that the teacher is not focusing only on one kind of bullying (such as physical bullying).
Remember, teachers are well meaning but also do not have eyes everywhere and rarely see what is really going on, may downplay what they do witness (either because of fear of their own liability or because they did not think it was a big deal)
Getting eye witness information is key but next to impossible. I had one parent who suspected that her child was being isolated by other children during lunch recess but the teachers all denied it. She staked out the playground, from a neighboring street, with a video camera that had a fabulous zoom. What she saw was her child standing by himself, close to the fence, for the entire recess. He never interacted with another child and no child, or adult, ever interacted with him. After 5 days of video collection, she called an IEP meeting and, after repeating her concerns and listening to staff claim that he had lots of friends and seemed to enjoy recess, out came the video camera.
Another source of good information is the lunch duty person. I remember back to when my own son was in kindergarten. I was preparing for his annual IEP meeting and went and did an observation at lunch. I saw my son standing by himself, walking in a circle, while kids actively avoided him. My son was supposed to have an aide facilitating at lunch so I went to speak to her. I asked if my son ever played with the other kids and she said that he usually could be found in the exact same spot, walking in a circle. I asked if she ever tried to organize any recess games (e.g. red rover, kickball, etc) and she said that she had to supervise all the students. Unbeknownst to me, the “aide” they had assigned to my son was in reality the lunch duty person. They told me she was the aide and told her she was the lunch duty person. She know nothing about my son. At his IEP meeting the next day, when the principal claimed my son had made so much progress, and spoke about how integrated he was at recess, I commented, “That is not what I learned from his aide, yesterday”. The principal’s response was telling: “Who are you referring to?” I said, “Gee, don’t you know who his assigned aide is?” Again, my bird’s eye observation told me what I needed to know, which was simply confirmed by the lunch lady.
Other children may not talk directly to you but, then again, they might. In one case that I had, the mom suspected that there were significant issues with her son at school. When she received a cryptic report that her child had experienced a “difficult time” during a school fire drill, she went down the street to speak to the “big kids” who were playing outside a neighbor’s house. The school was a K-8 school and, as such, all kids would have participated in the fire drill. What she learned was shocking. Her autistic child had a melt- down during the fire drill and 4 adults dragged him off the field, kicking and screaming, in front of the entire student body. Upon further inquiry, she discovered that her son was referred to as “the screamer” because you could hear him scream from the resource room every day, all day. While this child was not being bullied, he was inappropriately placed in a school drop in learning center with a teacher who had no idea how to deal with him. The point here is that the older kids had first-hand information to share with this mom about her child – information that was being intentionally hidden from her by the teacher who was responsible.
The best source of information is from others who are around your child in class but are NOT employed by the school district. This would include classmates or other parent volunteers. Neither a classmate nor a parent volunteer has an incentive to lie or any reason to minimize the reality. I always recommend that parents try to volunteer in their children’s classrooms to meet other parents, to see what is going on, to learn the names of other students and to directly or indirectly spy. If your child is in a general education classroom, they usually welcome volunteers. Find out the teacher’s policy by going to “back to school night” and asking whether they need volunteers and, if so, when. Then sign up. If you are in general education, they must treat you like all other parents and can not exclude you from being a volunteer. Just make sure to comply with the rules (that means, when you see something that the teacher is doing that is wrong, you are NOT supposed to then go up and get in his or her face!). In some special education classrooms, teachers have learned that parent volunteers are spies and thus they do not include them other than for parties. In those circumstances, your sources of information are more limited. Nevertheless, meet other parents and agree to keep your eyes open on their child and ask that they do the same. Parents may drop in to pick up or drop off a child who had a doctor’s appointment, or was otherwise leaving early or arriving late. You would be surprised what you can see in just a 5 minute drop off/pick up time period. Similarly, other parents may have siblings that are in general ed and volunteer. Presence on campus opens up opportunity. Just the other day I was on a campus observing a student with whom I worked and saw treatment of another child (with significant special needs) that was quite troubling. I did not know who that child was but the point here is that the more people you know who MIGHT be on campus at some point in time and MIGHT see something and share it, the better. Simply let the parents know that you would appreciate it if they ever see anything to share it with you.
If you have no avenue of directly observing, or indirectly spying through other parents or children in the class, then you need to start digging. In preschool, we all organized play dates for our children; this is not the general pattern once children are in elementary school, at least in general education. But, if at least you know the parents of other children, if you do suspect that your child is being isolated or bullied, ask the parent if he/she could talk to their child and find out information for you. Imagine this type of conversation between the parent of your child’s classmate and their child:
Mom: You know Billy from your class? Who does he play with at recess?
Child: Nobody plays with Billy, mom, he is weird.
Mom: Why do you think he is weird?
Child: He has an aide. He walks around in circles. He tucks his shirt in his shorts. He knows all the answers. He picks his skin (or other bodily part).
I could go on and on about all the things that our kids do that other kids might think are weird but you get the point – many of them are due to their disability. The point here is simply uncovering the truth as the teachers may not see the reality or, if they do, they may not admit it to you.
If you have a friend with older children, talking to them may be helpful. Schools deny that there is a problem but if you speak to older children, they will tell you the reality. This is particularly true if your child is in a multi-graded class or shares recess with kids from other grades, which may allow you to more readily spy. The older kids know what is really going on and can shed some insight into the reality for you. They may be out at recess/break at the same time. They may be in the locker room at the same time. When my oldest son was in 8th grade, his little brother, then in 6th grade, had PE at the same time (different teacher) and both were in the locker room at the same time. There thus were other eyes around to report and share what was really going on so that when the vice principal tried to tell me that the coach “supervised” the change out period, I could assure him that this was NOT the case, that the coach was in his office doing paper work and there was NO adult supervision at all. The locker room abuse was open and notorious. So, talking to older (or maybe younger) kids who have access to information or their parents may be an important source for you.
Once you discover the truth, that your child is being bullied, teased, isolated or otherwise victimized by hate motivated behavior, then what do you do? Well, that is the subject of my next blog. Stay tuned.
November 1, 2013
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January 11, 2012
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