One girl's story offers a glimpse into an everyday cruelty: the bullying of children with disabilities.
How do you know if your child is a bully?
It’s not easy. Bullies come in all shapes, sizes, and learning aptitudes. Some children who bully are struggling in other areas of life; others are popular kids who do well in school.
Bullies typically exhibit:
- poor impulse control
- low self-esteem
- intense sibling abuse or intimidation
However, not every kid who displays such behaviors is a bully. In fact they may be symptoms of other issues. To complicate things further, kids with disabilities or disorders who are bullied one year may turn around and become bullies the following.
By GreatSchools Staff
You could hear a pin drop on the blacktop the day that Gabriella Matson, a fourth-grader at a Colorado public school, wandered onto the playground for recess. A crowd of children had gathered in rapt attention around the slide. Teachers attempted to distract Gabriella away from the scene.
Was someone injured? Had a bird hit a window?
Eventually, Gabriella caught sight of the spectacle — not a kid’s broken wrist or a stunned sparrow, but a message aimed directly at her.
“I’m going to kill Gabriella Matson tomorrow at noon,” said a note scrawled on the slide. (The names of Gabriella and her mother have been changed to protect the family’s privacy.)
Administrators called the police to make a report and requested that Gabriella’s mother, Janet, hightail it down to the school. With a little sleuthing, the school identified the prime suspect: a fifth-grade girl who had taken a disliking to Gabriella and had left a nasty note in her mailbox earlier in the year.
When confronted by the police, the suspected bully neither denied nor confessed to making the threat. Without proof, the police said they had no option but to drop the case.
Battling the school to take action
But for Janet there was no dropping the issue. A child psychologist who worked with troubled tweens and adolescents, she recalls trying to impress upon the school that the alleged perpetrator represented a danger to her daughter as well as other students — especially since the girl, whose father was a police officer, had access to guns. Gabriella was so traumatized she eventually became clinically depressed and needed to be medicated.
After weeks of urging school administrators to take action, Janet says she contacted the governor and lieutenant governor, who happened to be implementing a new anti-bullying program (which Gabriella's school had chosen not to use). Feeling that Gabriella still wasn't safe and that she herself had come to be seen as a “pain-in-the-ass mother," Janet withdrew her daughter and enrolled her in a local parochial school.
Janet says the slide incident was the worst instance of bullying her daughter — a solitary kid who preferred the company of books to her peers — experienced. But it wasn’t the only one. Later at the private school, Gabriella encountered bullying of the classic mean-girls variety with a new high-tech twist: texting, Facebook rumors, a full cyberbully assault. Though Gabriella had done nothing to provoke this abuse, the quiet, bookish kid represented something that made her especially vulnerable.
Targeting children who stand out
Considered “gifted with AD/HD,” Gabriella was one of the legions of children with a disability who become the target of bullying. Research has long shown that children with learning disabilities, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, attention deficit disorder, or autism, as well as physical disabilities, are far more at risk for being bullied than other children. One 2007 British study found that 82% of children with learning disabilities claim to have been bullied. (An NIH study from 2001 found that 16% of all children report having been bullied in the past term.) According to Marlene Snyder of Olweus Bullying Prevention Program in Clemson, S.C., children with learning issues may be overly sensitive and reactive, which attracts the attention of bullies.
“Any child who is different from the norm is vulnerable," says Karen Hoving, an AD/HD specialist. "Typical kids are like vultures — they pick it up.”
Yet the widespread phenomenon remains under the radar for many schools, teachers, and parents. When it involves a kid whose disability isn't visible, bullying can be all the more difficult to untangle. "I don't think most kids will kick the crutch out from under a kid," explains Carol Greenburg, an autism specialist and the executive director of Brooklyn Special Needs Consulting in New York. "But when it's invisible — when it's 'They're weird' — it seems worse."
The disability, like AD/HD or obsessive-compulsive disorder, may be a confidential matter — so that fellow students only see the child’s unusual behavior with no context or explanation. And sometimes schools are anything but helpful: One study showed that 25% of teachers see nothing wrong with bullying.
An attempt to bully-proof her child...