Last month, Sophia kept her 8-year-old daughter out of school because of alleged bullying that she thought was not being properly addressed by school administrators.
Tired of waiting for a satisfactory official response to a situation that she says began in August, Sophia called police after her daughter was allegedly thrown to the ground by her neck. That’s when she removed the girl from class.
Sophia said her daughter’s alleged bully is autistic, which the mother believes is why San Francisco Unified School District officials have not addressed her concerns. Children with autism tend to exhibit repetitive behaviors and have difficulties with social interaction, including verbal and nonverbal communication.
In 2011, 35 years after federal law first required it, the school district finally adopted a policy that increased the number of such students in general education classrooms as long as their individual education plans allowed for it.
Yet the case of Sophia’s daughter illustrates the challenges of implementing such a policy in a school district that also prides itself on having zero tolerance for bullying. Can the rights of most students be jeopardized when school officials provide equal educational opportunities to autistic children who may lack impulse controls?
It cuts both ways. According to a study published last year in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 14.8 percent of kids with autism engaged in bullying, which didn’t exceed the rate for children without autism.
However, 46.3 of children with autism had been the victim of bullying. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only about 20 percent of the general student population reports being the victim of bullying.
Due to privacy concerns, San Francisco Unified School District officials cannot comment on specific cases, and for the same reason, The San Francisco Examiner is not revealing the identities of the students, parents or school in question. However, district spokeswoman Gentle Blythe said officials are confident that concerns about student behavior are being addressed.
“SFUSD has many policies and procedures in place to ensure that students have a safe learning environment,” Blythe wrote in an email. “When there are issues that arise on campus, staff address those issues in a manner that is developmentally appropriate and consistent with district, state and federal laws related to student discipline.”
According to the district’s School Times fall 2012 newsletter, school officials “investigate every complaint and are ready to provide assistance to help the victim as well as the child who is doing the bullying.”
“Educators have a grave responsibility to prevent bullying and so do students, parents and community members,” Superintendent Richard Carranza said in the newsletter. “This is an important issue in the lives of our children and for all of us who care about children.”
Sophia agrees, but isn’t convinced that district officials mean what they say. She said the alleged bullying began at the beginning of this school year when one of her daughter’s classmates reportedly began spitting on her, smashing her crackers and even chasing her around the school yard with scissors.
Since removing her daughter from class for one day, Sophia has gotten reassurance from the school’s principal that any interaction between the two children will be closely watched. But she’s still hesitant. Before returning her daughter to class, Sophia taught her some self-defense techniques.
“I don’t think they’re taking this bullying issue seriously,” the 36-year-old said. “What happens if she hits my daughter on the head and knocks her unconscious? She’s already chasing my daughter with scissors, and strangles her around her neck.”
But Katy Franklin, chairwoman of the school district’s community advisory committee for special education, said including such students in mainstream classes has its benefits. Students with disabilities get the same curriculum as everyone else, while general education students learn tolerance and respect.
For such “inclusion” to be successful, however, teachers and students need the proper resources, Franklin said. And she believes that’s not happening at all school sites.
“Children with autism tend to need a lot of support to acclimatize themselves to the environment,” she said. “It’s not happening in a lot of cases. A lot of teachers are saying they don’t have the supports.”
And Sophia’s daughter isn’t the only child in her situation. Franklin said she’s heard of bullying cases involving “inclusion” students at elementary schools other than the one Sophia’s daughter attends.
According to Julie Hertzog, director of PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center, bullying can occur at any age and for many reasons.
“Bullying is about vulnerabilities,” Hertzog said. “I think it’s important when you have a situation to be clear on what’s happening. Talking to the people involved and talking to the individuals, not as a group.”
PACER was founded to focus on educating students with disabilities and preventing bullying, but Hertzog noted it’s not uncommon for students with disabilities to do the bullying. In either case, its imperative that school officials find out the reason behind the actions.
“We find that kids will bully in response to being bullied,” she said. “It’s the behavior they see. Or maybe they’re being manipulated.”
Sophia said she had heard her daughter’s bully may be bullying other children too. But she said she still wants her daughter to feel safe.
“It seems to me my daughter has been bullied and the school is looking in the other direction,” she said.
A tale of two trends
As the San Francisco Unified School District has increased the involvement of special-education students in everyday classes, it also has rolled out new programs designed to address bullying. In some cases, these two trends can collide.
- Number of students in San Francisco Unified School District: 56,222
- Number of students enrolled in special education: 6,710
- Number of students with autism: 666
Greater sensitivity to bullying
Complaints can be filed with a teacher or administrator if bullying has allegedly taken place. Within five days, the principal must acknowledge and investigate the complaint by interviewing all the parties involved. A written report containing the investigation’s findings and decision should be made within 10 working days. Typically, the district seeks to promote positive behavior. School employees create support plans for alleged bullies that give kids structured activities instead of play time, include role-playing on how to interact with other children, and have the children participate in social skill groups.
*Source: California Department of Education and SFUSD. The special-education numbers reflect the 2011-12 school year, the most recent data provided to the state