Back in 2010, Education Secretary Arne Duncan convened a “bullying summit” in which he characterized bullying as a “gateway to hate,” which when left unchecked, could escalate into further violence and abuse. The Department of Education was announcing a shift in its approach to this issue by reframing bullying as a civil rights issue in which the federal government would take a more proactive role in investigating, enforcing, and monitoring compliance of school districts. To that end, the Office of Civil Rights expanded its data collection and for the first time gathered data on bullying related to racial, sexual, or disability harassment. The OCR recently released data on the 2009-2010 school year. The data, which were gathered from 85% of the nation’s schools, or 7000 school districts, revealed some surprising results. Of the 20 largest school districts in the country, 14, including the public school systems of New York City and Los Angeles, had absolutely no reports of bullying or harassment.
It’s difficult to not be facetious here. These are new reporting requirements, and once school districts comply with them, we will have a veritable treasure trove of information about what is happening to students in our nation’s schools. But what do we currently know? How frequently do we believe bullying is actually occurring in schools? According to the American Psychological Association, 40 to 80% of school-age children experience bullying at some point during their school careers. Ten to 15% of students are either chronic victims or bullies themselves. And the data are far more disturbing for students with special needs. A British study indicated that whereas 25% of the general school population reported being bullied, 60% of students with disabilities reported bullying. Ten studies in the United States indicate that children with special needs are two to three times more likely to be bullied than their non-disabled peers, and that the bullying is more chronic in nature and related to their disability.
Two of the children profiled in the recently released documentary, Bullying, had autism spectrum diagnoses. The film focused on the grieving family of a 17-year-old who had committed suicide after years of relentless abuse. Cameras also documented the hellacious experiences of a second boy, a middle school student, who is tormented and physically abused on a regular basis by his peers. When his parents went to the school after being presented with film footage of an assault on their son on the bus provided by the makers of the film, they were offered only platitudes. When his parents tried to explain to the boy that friends are supposed to make you feel good and not hurt you, the boy, Alex, responded, but then who are my friends?
The film is absolutely heartbreaking. Most likely not all of the children profiled in the film had special needs, but filmmakers consciously chose not to highlight that the two aforementioned boys had Asperger’s. Cynthia Lowen, who is a writer and producer of the film said, “We didn’t want to continue the idea that targets of bullying bring it on themselves. They should be safe and protected at school. That was really the point we were trying to make.” The idea is laudable, but perhaps the film missed the opportunity to highlight the living hell experienced by some students with special needs and how much more vulnerable they are to bullying. What schools call a “teachable moment” may have been lost.
Regardless, we can hope that school staff and students will all view this film as an opportunity to engage in meaningful conversation on the catastrophic toll bullying can take on its recipients, both those with disabilities and those without. And with a federal effort underway to elevate the seriousness of bullying as a civil rights offense, perhaps, just perhaps, something might finally change.