Monday, March 24, 2008

School bullying and disability

Parents of Billy Wolfe, a 15 year old boy with a learning disability, are suing a teen bully and other 'John Does' who have allegedly beaten and harassed their son for years. They say they are doing it because the school district has failed to take enough action and may also sue the school district.

The many incidents seem to blur together into one protracted assault. When Billy attaches a bully’s name to one beating, his mother corrects him. “That was Benny, sweetie,” she says. “That was in the eighth grade.”

It began years ago when a boy called the house and asked Billy if he wanted to buy a certain sex toy, heh-heh. Billy told his mother, who informed the boy’s mother. The next day the boy showed Billy a list with the names of 20 boys who wanted to beat Billy up.

Ms. Wolfe says she and her husband knew it was coming. She says they tried to warn school officials — and then bam: the prank caller beat up Billy in the bathroom of McNair Middle School. via NY Times

The beatings have continued over the years, resulting at times in the need for medical care. Moreover, students have "ganged up" by putting up a demeaning Facebook  page and scrawling notes that are "anti-Billy" in school textbooks.  Despite the fact that the article notes the school district has a policy that does not tolerate bullying, the incidents have continued over the years. One school official said that  Billy's behavior is part of the problem and the school defends its actions in the case. 

But Ms. Wolfe scoffs at the notion that her son causes or deserves the beatings he receives. She wonders why Billy is the only one getting beaten up, and why school officials are so reluctant to punish bullies and report assaults to the police.

Mr. Wilbourn said federal law protected the privacy of students, so parents of a bullied child should not assume that disciplinary action had not been taken. He also said it was left to the discretion of staff members to determine if an incident required police notification.

I was particularly struck by the severity of the beatings when I read about this case, which required medical treatment on numerous occasions. One beating took place when a teen in a car pulled over and began beating Billy on a street corner, stopping only when his younger sister began to scream. What would be treated as assault in any other context is often called bullying when it happens in our schools or between students,  which in this case appears to have escalated not only the incidents of abuse but the numbers of those who feel free to join in. 


Anonymous said...

School administrators aren't equipped to handle many of these incidents and a good thing about lawsuits is there's a chance to settle and establish procedures such as bringing in an expert psychologist to address the problem years before the bullying escalates to this point. Great post, Ruth.


Tausign said...

I recently watched a teachers 'clinic or seminar' on this general subject which was broadcast on a cable TV community network. The presenter had video clips of what happens unnoticed on the school playgrounds of even elementary schools. Parents are often oblivious or loath to admit what is happening.

The community is apt to obscure the issue often labeling the victim because of some peculiar behavior. But the real issue is violence. And little do they suspect that in a very real way, the bully is causing even more destruction to themselves, even if hidden from their conscience.

Ruth said...

Tausign - thanks for those links. The violence involved is disturbing in this incident as in a few others I've seen -and it's good to see information out there for parents and educators. You make a really good point about its effect on the bully.

Jeff - The escalation in this case, and the number of kids and incidents involved, struck me as a good test case to start seeing what level of accountability we, as a society and the legal system, will require from administrators and others when bullying (physical and other) is happening right under their noses on an almost daily basis. It seems these issues are not really handled in a way that results in the actual enforcement of a no bullying policy. I can think of a myraid of questions that face a school administrator when trying to handle a situation like this.

Issues for discussion that come to mind include: What responsibilities do school administrators have to take action - and when? At what level of bullying should the police be called? What if it occurs on school grounds - what's the standard then? Off school grounds ?

It also raises the issue about how crimes against disabled people are handled. In those cases, the language that is used sometimes obscures the issues. Certainly having to have repeated medical care after "school bullying" brings the incidents into the level of assault. It is not teasing. It is not something that should be tolerated (or would be tolerated) in other contexts. What does tolerating it teach the child who is being bullied - and as Tausign points out - the bully?

Anonymous said...

I saw coverage of this on CNN yesterday and they interviewed the kid who is being bullied. He said the new principal is more helpful and told a story about how he was in a park with his parents when kids pulled a bullying prank on him. They just seemed to want to bring attention to the issue so it doesn't happen to someone else. My son gets teased because of his disability and I have tried to work with the schools about it and get the old toughen him up routine but what about teaching the bullies how to act appropriately instead?