By Jerzy Shedlock
Morris News Service – Alaska
Communication is essential to breaking the cycle of bullying. For example, tell your children their options for dealing with a bully, said Carla Abild, parent navigator with Stone Soup Group.
Abild recounted reactions of a parent during a bullying prevention event.
“We had one parent laugh and say, ‘Yeah, my son has Aspergers (syndrome), he probably could recite the entire school policy to a bully, but I don’t think that would help.’ But letting your child know what some of the rules are and what they can do to help is important,” she said.
Two parent navigators with Stone Soup Group, an Anchorage-based nonprofit supporting families who care for children with special needs, visited the Kenai Peninsula last week. Teachers from local schools and a small number of parents attended the bullying prevention event, gathering knowledge and resources. The event addressed aspects of bullying; the presenter discussed topics ranging from cyber bullying to disability-related bullying.
The event was geared toward parents. The nonprofit provided a folder of materials including information sheets titled “Bullying and harassment of students with disabilities,” “Common views and myths about bullying,” and “Steps to take if your child is being bullied at school,” among others.
The nonprofit works closely with PACER Center, a national bullying prevention organization. The center designed most of the training and materials provided at the event.
Abild highlighted online resources available through PACER’s website.
“It’s everyone’s responsibility,” she reiterated throughout the event.
Bullying is generally defined as a power struggle. If children are having difficulty emotionally or physically defending themselves, it’s bullying, according to PACER.
Abild said the definition of bullying usually includes repeated behaviors, but she disagrees.
“The first time you see (bullying) you want to stop it,” she said. “You don’t want to wait four or five times to make sure it’s a pattern.”
Alaska’s anti-bullying laws include the terms harassment, intimidation and bullying. There are no specific groups listed as protected under the laws, but schools that receive federal funding are required to address discrimination. Alaska’s schools can adopt a state-model policy for bullying, which the Kenai Peninsula School District has done.
Verbal bullying is quick and direct. Children with Aspergers syndrome often fall victim to this type of bullying because they’re easy targets. Classmates will rile them up on purpose, Abild said.
Physical bullying is easy to recognize. It greatly affects children with sensory issues. The fear of physical danger can lead to stress and sickness. Children will pretend to be sick or become ill as a result of physical bullying, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
Emotional bullying, like manipulation and gossip; sexual bullying, like violation of personal space to rape; and cyber bullying, described by PACER as the “new bathroom wall” are other types of bullying.
Kids with disabilities are two to three times more likely to experience one or multiple types of bullying, Abild said.
A main area of concern for advocates is the potential of students dropping out of school. Children — those with and without disabilities — become afraid of school. Multiple studies indicate about 160,000 students miss school every day due to bullying.
Parents of children with disabilities struggle to show their kids that they are in fact being bullied.
Tonja Updike, who has worked with the Peninsula Community Health Service’s (PCHS) Children’s Health Improvement Program, sits on a state board that addresses autism. She also works in the Peninsula’s schools to teach young students about disabilities.
Despite her continued work with children she struggles to teach her own son about bullying, she said. Doctors diagnosed her son, 10-year-old Garrett, with autism when he was 18 months old.
“It’s much easier to talk about the concept of bullying to children, but my son doesn’t fully understand,” Updike said. “That’s a question that remains unanswered in a lot of ways. I can document things, but I can’t be around him 24/7 and neither can the school employees, so that’s a lingering concern.”
Another parent who attended the event echoed those concerns. Leslie Rohr’s 10-year-old son experienced bullying. Fellow fifth-graders taunted and tormented him, she said.
The parents, however, sat down with their son’s teacher, who agreed to discuss autism with the class while her son was absent. The difference was remarkable, Rohr said.
But adults tend to judge people with disabilities more severely, Updike lamented.
“It’s easier to talk to children, because they have less of a concrete idea about how people should be,” she said. “Adults already have their ideas and don’t want to change.”
The parents appreciated the guidance in local and state resources during the event, they said.
PCHS’s children’s program hopes to host more events throughout this school year.
Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.