For followers of my blog, you know that the bullying of kids with disabilities is a subject that I believe has long been overlooked. I have spoken and written about this topic for years, well before bullying was a fixture on the evening news.
Recently, I had the chance to hear a very inspirational story about a student with Asperger’s Disorder who managed to turn the very negative experience of being bullied into a positive result. Amy Langerman is a colleague who is a special education attorney in Arizona, and also a special education consultant/advocate in Coronado, California, where she and her family currently reside. In a discussion on the subject of bullying among some parents’ attorneys, Amy’s description of her son’s response to being targeted in school was, in a word, remarkable .
Joey Langerman’s reaction was so creative, and more importantly, empowering, that I was compelled to ask him if he’d share his story on my blog. I am so grateful that he obliged, and now that I have heard his insights into his experience, I am even more moved by his words.
I am confident you will be too.
JEN: Joey, tell us about your experiences being bullied by other kids at your school. Did you feel any or all of it was based on your disability?
JOEY: What happened to me is in the past. How kids chose to pick on, torment, bully or harass me really isn’t something I want to define me. I am like many, many other kids. I never knew whether I was targeted because of my disability. I appear “normal”. I go to a “regular” school and am in “regular” classes and am one of the “good” students. There were many days where I suspected that I had been “discovered” but I have no proof of any of that. I suspect that the reality is that the hatemongers who chose me for their special brand of abuse could see that I was not the “popular kid”, an athlete, cool, surrounded by friends, or otherwise “off limits”; I tended to stick to myself because that is my comfort zone and as such, I was an easy mark.
JEN: How did these incidents impact you initially?
JOEY: Like many others, I did not tell my mom. I did not report what was going on. I felt alone and very powerless. I was totally focused on where my abusers were and what they were going to do to me next. I was unable to focus on my school work. I started leaving homework at home, flunking tests, and other things that were very unlike me. My teachers and specifically my speech therapist knew something was up but assumed I was stressed about going to high school (this was in 8thgrade). So, they said nothing to anyone either because it didn’t seem that “out of context” in light of the upcoming graduation and transition. I got so upset at one point and had no one to take it out on that I punched my little brother. That was when I finally confided in my psychologist who persuaded me to tell my mom and with her help, I was able to report what happened and get some help.
JEN: One of the things that I am so impressed by is how you responded…please tell us what you did to counter this behavior. Tell us about VACHI.
JOEY: VACHIis Voices Against Cruelty, Hatred and Intolerance. It is an organization that I founded to create clubs on high school campuses to teach people about bullying and promote tolerance. VACHI is designed to educate parents, teachers, students and administrators about the consequences of hate behavior so that they want to end it. It seeks to teach witnesses not to be bystanders but to be actors and to say three simple words when they see abuse: “That’s not cool”. Instantly, the victim is supported and the abuser is shunned. We seek to educate teachers that just telling kids to “quit it” is NOT an answer; the victims think “no one will help me” and the bullies think “got away with it again”. So, we train teachers to instantly refer ANY act of hate, including name calling, to administrators, NOT for punishment but for education. The “education instead of punishment” idea was modeled after first offender programs that are used for drug crimes. The idea is to get everyone to “sign on” to wanting a hate-free environment, from the top down. VACHI did not evolve overnight or after the first or even second incidences of bullying inflicted upon me. Unfortunately, I have been targeted often and repeatedly, in many environments. My mom asked me if I was going to let my abusers’ actions determine who I was going to be or if I was going to let MY actions determine my fate. So, I decided that I couldn’t change the way bullies treated victims and probably couldn’t change the way victims perceived their abuse but maybe I COULD change the way witnesses responded when they saw abuse and maybe that would help me and help others. VACHI really is directed at changing “bystander” behavior.
JEN: What suggestions would you give to other students who are being targeted in school based on their disability, or any perceived “difference”?
JOEY: Well, you have to tell. Someone. I was lucky and my mom is a special education attorney like you are and she was able to immediately get my IEP team to refocus goals directed to helping me to self-advocate. Did that help? Not really. I have to be very honest. Repeatedly they tried to teach me that if I am abused, I could do X, Y, or Z and I had already tried them all. They don’t make a difference when you are dealing with a bully. None of those things stopped the abuse, or made me feel any better. What finally worked was me getting some good counseling help to recognize that this is NOT my fault, NOT my problem and that I can NOT let this define me. These people who live to abuse are not worth the time and energy of one moment’s notice. I have been lucky; since starting VACHI I am not targeted any more. I think the tolerance message VACHI presents is working on my campus and there is a lot less abuse around. And, candidly, kids are not totally stupid. No one abuses the Founder of an organization that promotes tolerance. In the interim, while I was working on myself, and how to learn to accept what happened and not let it define me, my mom and I were able to work with the administration to put some things in place so that I would feel safer. So, my advice is to tell your parent, tell your special education teacher, tell your school counselor.
The supports that my mom fought for and which did help me in school were significant. First, the school agreed not to put any of the bullies in my classes. Second, the school agreed to have a security guard walk through unannounced in the PE locker room to be a “presence”. When he stopped coming after the second day and I was targeted again, I told my mom and she was at the principal’s door the same day. Third, the school agreed to have teachers help facilitate project partners in my classes. I lost my faith in other students. I thought everyone was out to get me. Kids who are easy targets for bullying may have difficulty with social interactions because they are afraid to trust; teachers often tell kids to “partner up” and that leaves a kid open to abuse or at least to have fear of potential abuse which may cause them to “freeze” when the teacher says to pick a partner. Teachers should assign partners and anyone who has been bullied should have a partner handpicked to ensure no abuse as well as fostering a good peer experience. I am able now to pick a partner without any problem but my head is in a much better place now. The most important thing is to get counseling support – I would not be where I am today without the help of my outside counselor and my outside speech therapist who works on “social thinking” goals with me. These are not school staff; they are private (but funded through the school) and I feel comfortable talking to them about anything.
JEN: Do you have any plans to use these experiences in your future?
JOEY: I hope to take the VACHI movement with me to college. And I hope that the kids who I got to help continue VACHI at my local high school after I go to college will do the same. I am not sure where I am going yet (I guess I am lucky to have many good choices) but when I get there, I want to work with local high schools in the area and introduce them to VACHI in the hopes they might start a chapter there. I hope that those behind me will do the same. If we can each start a few clubs, and the people who start those each start a few clubs, by “paying it forward” maybe we can have hundreds or thousands of such clubs in the future. I started a website (http://www.vachi.net/) with an eye toward the future with forms and ideas on how to start a club in any location. Maybe in 10 years, there will be a club on every campus, just like National Honor Society.
JEN: If you could pick one, simple piece of advice to give another kid who might be facing what you faced, who might not have the ability to put together a movement like VACHI, what would it be?
JOEY: Well, I would not tell them what I have heard from many adults as I was working on creating VACHI. I can’t tell you how many times an adult said things like – “this is part of growing up, and don’t worry, it will get better when you go to college”. I can’t tell you how little that does to help. What I heard and what another child hears is “oh, great… I get to suffer for the next four years!” I would tell another child facing the same situation that I was facing that they need to tell their parent so they can get the help that I got. But, more importantly, I would tell the parents that they MUST take action. The reality is that victims are not likely to be able to self- advocate or otherwise help themselves and they need adults to protect them. Through VACHI, I can’t tell you how many parents tell me and others that “bullying is part of growing up”, “kids just need to toughen up”, “turn another cheek”, or “fight back”. Parents must take the time to learn HOW to help their child and then HELP their child. If that means showing up daily at the principal’s office to see if they actually provided some adult supervision in the locker room to provide a “presence” so that the “easy mark” kids are not “gay bashed” or abused, then you need to do that, EVERY DAY. Most schools do not think there is a problem because no kid reports it. So, when they learn of ONE incident, they think it is an aberration and pay lip service to responding appropriately. If they learn of more (and make sure you leave a paper trail), they start worrying about their liability and that is when maybe they will do something. I love my mom for her undying strength in trying to fight to keep my school safe (for me and others) while the professionals helped me to work through my inner demons and get the strength to become a voice for others.
Finally, I would tell parents that and professionals and others who might be reading this: If you know someone looking for a good community service project, have them contact me through VACHI’s website (above) or at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will walk them through how to start a club on their campus. The more we are promoting tolerance, the fewer bully-cides we should see in the future.