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Back To School = Back To Bullies

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Back to school for some children means back to being bullied despite a school's anti-bullying, no tolerance policy. Kids are masters at getting in mean digs and shoves hoping to get a rise out of their fellow classmates when adults aren't looking. Children with exceptionalities, including autism, are more vulnerable to abusers.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said:

"When a resolute young fellow steps up to the great bully, the world, and takes him boldly by the beard, he is often surprised to find it comes off in his hand, and that it was only tied on to scare away the timid adventurers."

Last year, my son, Liam, who has autism, was a victim of bullying much like this scene from "Parenthood." In this scene, Max, who has Asperger's syndrome, is frustrated working on an art project at school. The other children are giggling at him, fueling his frustration until someone finally calls him a "freak," which causes him to lash out. In turn, the bully becomes the "victim" because the teacher wasn't able to catch the behavior that caused Max to act out.

In Liam's case, a small group of boys realized that when they repeatedly whispered "Bad Guy" or "Loser," that it would set Liam off. Crying and yelling at them made him look crazy to the rest of the kids, feeding the cycle of abuse. Liam, in turn, got in trouble for disrupting class. After approaching the school, counselors and teachers tried to work with Liam to teach him how to ignore these children but to no avail. None of his peers came to his rescue, fearing the bullies themselves. Liam's self esteem plummeted and he did not want to go to school to face them alone.

Liam is a sweet, peaceful boy. Aware of his autism, he tries very hard to fit in with the rest of the student population. He clearly expresses the same wants and desires as his peers -- good buddies, a girlfriend, pizza for school lunch, more time for video games. He is learning more about social boundaries and appropriate interaction. Because his whole life has centered on rote learning and rule following, it is difficult to explain to him why other children are not following the rules. Even harder to explain how they are getting away with it.

As this school year approached, his anxiety rose. Almost hourly he would say, "Mom, what do I do if they call me bad guy again?" I would reply "Ignore them honey. Remember how we practiced that?" We ran through several drills to reinforce this coping mechanism -- how to ignore them, how to inform his guidance counselor if he encountered harassment, how to tell a teacher by writing her a note or whispering quietly in her ear after class that he needed help.

It took all of three days. He came home crying. They were at it again. My heart sank.

We notified the school. They were aware of the situation and agreed to be more aggressive in addressing it this year, especially since it was the beginning of school.

Last week, Liam finally came home with a huge smile on his face. Running in to the kitchen to greet me with his arms in the air, he exclaimed, "They are going to stop calling me bad guy, Mom! A police lady came today and told them that if they are bullies they are breaking the law! Everyone said they would stop calling me a bad guy!"

Sure enough, a policewoman in uniform addressed the whole seventh grade regarding the school's no bullying policy at the request of school staff. Students were required to sign pledges that they understood that policy. This past week, the teachers explained to the class what autism is and how it might affect Liam or the other children with autism in the school. Once educated on the challenges that Liam faces, the students changed their attitudes.

The next day Liam came home with a dozen apology notes. Some were haughty and forced but the majority of them demonstrated true remorse for either participating in the name calling or for not standing up for Liam to stop it.

I asked Liam to read them all to me then pick his two favorite letters so we could hang them on the fridge.

Liam, I apologize for the others that tease you and taunt you. I am not one of them but I have still laughed at your reaction and I am so sorry. Truly sorry. I encourage you to stay strong and tell the teacher if you need extra help. I believe you can be better and wiser even with your condition. I believe that you can succeed. So don't give up because people like me do care about you. Plus, those who do tease you, they gonna be pregnant in two years anyways or at McDonalds getting your order for you. So keep going Liam and please don't let them get to you. -- Your friend, MT

Liam! Yeah, I think he's cool and he's also my Dawg. So yeah ... he's a cool kid. But I won't be mean to him. I'm not mean to my Dawgs. So Liam ... that's my dawg ... it's a'ight man. It's cool. Be cool. -- Your dawg too! RF

For now, our fingers crossed, breath held, we hope a bit of education and aggressively addressing this issue will end the bullying.

Liam happily hopped out of the car this morning. He knows who his friends are now. He knows that the boys who bothered him were punished for their bad behavior. He knows the school won't tolerate it. Most importantly, he felt safe again.

If your child is bullied, especially if they have special needs, stay on the school. Find creative ways to address the problem. Teresa Foden and Dr. Connie Anderson with the Kennedy Krieger Institute recently published an excellent article on dealing with bullying issues if your child has autism. Ensure an ongoing educational process for both school personnel and the children.

I don't expect this to stop abuse forever in Liam's life. Bullies like to intimidate and keep other children from helping your child. However, once those children are educated, they feel empowered to take a stand.

Way to rip the beard off 'em, Liam and start taking on the world!