As a long term EBD teacher I was all too familiar with the pain my students caused others. I also know how often my students were the bullied ones. And I know how often their complaints were disregarded and how often they were told they should just ignore the problematic bully, how often they were told they were asking for what they got.
I have come to the belief that some of what we call bullying by our students with special needs is just maladaptive social behaviors, inability to effectively communicate with peers, inability to read the affect of others. Sometimes there is no mean intent. Sometimes it is just not knowing how else to relate. There is a difference between not understanding because of a skill deficit and bullying.
A big difference.
And yet I see school administrators lumping it all together in one problem called bullying.
Bullying is all about perception. If I perceive threat from another and the other knows I feel threatened and the intent is to make me feel threatened, then that is bullying. It is intentional meanness. If I perceive threat and others don’t see it as a threat, I am told to ignore said threat. But I still feel threatened. Whose problem is this?
If I am the cause of someone feeling threat, but my actions are simply maladaptive social behavior, the person feeling threatened is still going to feel unsafe in some way. Are they feeling unsafe because of the unpredictability of my maladaptive behaviors, do they understand the intent is not to cause harm? Either way, they feel unsafe.
And this brings me to my current thinking about bullying. I would like to reframe it. I say we must take any student’s perceived sense of threat seriously. And that means the tattle tale, the oversensitive kid, the special ed kid, the gen ed kid. If a student feels unsafe, then that is what we attend to.
No matter the reason. No matter how we may perceive the threat. No matter if the threat is really a non-threat according to our standards and definition of threat.
We cannot continue to tell any of our students to ignore anything that makes them feel unsafe. No matter who the student is.
Darlene is a high school student with special needs. She has emotional and behavioral issues, a learning disability and has been significantly traumatized in her younger life. She has arrested emotional development because of trauma. She never feels safe at school. She feels her teachers do not care and are not there to support her. Most often she suspects the intent of other students as threatening. Sometimes she tries to be a tough girl, sometimes she runs right to the adults that are supposed to keep her feeling safe. She is a frequent reporter of feeling threat. She is a target because she reacts to everything. And sometimes that reaction is unpleasant and unpredictable. Most often the school adults tell her to ignore what others are saying and doing and that if she would just ignore, then others would leave her alone.
I call bullshit on that one.
I think we can agree that when one feels threatened they typically fight, fly, or freeze. In most cases, Darlene feels the need to at least throw some tough girl language in the direction of what she perceives a threat. She is doing what she can to allow herself to feel safe.
Darlene is taunted a lot. Daily, and by a small core of other students she spends much of her day with in special ed classes. She spends her days in a constant state of hyper vigilance. This leaves little brain function for learning and correctly assessing the intent of others. Darlene has taken her concerns to building administrators repeatedly and is told to ignore.
Well, Darlene snapped the other day. I am honestly surprised it took her this long. The day before the snap, another repeat offender shoved Darlene and caused her entire lunch to spill down the front of her shirt. Darlene did nothing but throw some language at the perpetrator. The very next day, there were words and another shove, so Darlene swung back. She was thrown to the floor and ended up with a concussion and sprained clavicle.
Please note her that the administration never asked Darlene if she was OK physically. They told her she should have ignored the other girl. They put her in ISS alone in a conference room off the front office. She was in there alone, with a massive headache for the remainder of the day. I will stop here with the description of how Darlene was treated as that digresses from the real purpose in today’s post.
Darlene was handed a citation and a 5 day suspension. Because of confidentiality I have no idea what happened to the other student.
We have this all wrong.
We are punishing kids who fight against not feeling safe and reacting to a sense of threat. Repeated threat. We are expecting someone in a state of hyper vigilance to ignore threats, and in this case they were both physical and verbal. Darlene, for whatever reasons, is in a constant state of high anxiety due to perceived threat.
And that is where we need to start untangling the mess. And you all know I don’t mean to PBIS the students. You all know how ineffective that is when dealing with mental health. And Darlene has been traumatized repeatedly. As such she deserves trauma informed counsel and care in her school.
Refusing to see this as the complex situation it is means nothing gets resolved, nobody gets the help and care they need, and the cycle continues.
Blaming the victim for responding to what they perceive as a threat or unsafe situation, further victimizes the victim, which makes for an even more hyper vigilant person in an even more frequent state of perceived threat.
Giving either of the students legal citations for fighting glosses over the problem assuming both parties are in control and mentally healthy.
My guess is both parties are feeling unsafe most of the time and their actions are their maladaptive way to restore a sense of safety.
So, we have this all wrong. If any kiddo is feeling unsafe, start there. Listen, offer real coping strategies.
Most importantly, don’t tell them to ignore what they perceive as a threat.
That’s just crazy making.
That’s just irresponsible.
That’s just bullying.