SPECIAL REPORT: Down syndrome child reportedly bullied, how schools handle bullying

One school district explains how schools define it and weigh consequences.

CHEMUNG COUNTY, N.Y. (18 News) - It's no secret that bullying is prevalent in schools across the country.

Here at 18 News, we receive many complaints from parents saying their child is getting bullied, declaring the school is not doing anything about it, but what constitutes as bullying and how do schools define it?

One mother, who wishes to remain anonymous, has a special needs son and claims he was bullied in Elmira. 

She received call from her 14-year old son's teacher at Ernie Davis Academy saying a group of students reportedly barged in on him while he was changing calling him fat and other hurtful names. 

"I am just up in arms over this and on top of all that, he's supposed to be supervised because he's a down syndrome child," the mother said. 

According to the mother, the punishment for the alleged perpetrators was a verbal warning. 

18 News reached out to the school for clarification on the incident and they responded with this statement:

“The safety of our students is our number one priority. We have many protocols in place that guide our educators as they respond to incidents within our system. We focus on prevention and positive conflict resolution. Teachers and staff are as visible as possible throughout each of our buildings and available to support students and families with concerns. Our school teams act swiftly to deliver appropriate and impactful responses to individual situations. The Elmira City School District operates with a no tolerance policy on bullying.”

The mother said the school did not disclose more information she asked for. 

"They said it's private," she explained. "That's privacy, but where was my son's privacy when he's in the bathroom? They didn't give him any privacy."

While many cases of bullying are legitimate, some might not be. 

The Horseheads School District says bullying comes in many shapes and forms and that it also varies between grade levels all the way up to adulthood. For example, a younger child might accuse another of bullying when a fellow classmate says he or she doesn't like the same color as they do. 

"When you're faced with it, you've got to help people understand that there is conflicts, there's harassment and there's bullying which is a form of harassment," Horseheads Central School District Superintendent Dr. Thomas Douglas said. 

New York State's anti-bullying law known as the Dignity for All Students Act, or DASA, defines harassment as the creation of a hostile environment by conduct, verbal threats, intimidation or abuse resulting in interference of a student's educational performance, mental, emotional, or physical well-being that causes fear for his or her physical safety.*

Bullying, subsumed under 'harassment,' is a hostile activity that harms or induces fear through the threat of further aggression and/or creates terror. It's also characterized by power imbalance and intent to harm.*

When it comes to communication between parents and the school, Horseheads says districts are not mediators between parents and that they have to work with the issue usually between the students. 

"We are controlled by the amount of information we can disclose," Dr. Douglas said. "Even to other parents, if it involves their child, we can talk to them about their child. We can not necessarily talk to them about another child. Our obligation is to make sure the situation is addressed and sometimes, that lends to some communication breakdown issues because we're limited on what we can share. That's the disappointing piece."

Procedures are followed within each school's code of conduct along with DASA.

For punishments, many schools operate on a progressive form of discipline which means jumping to the hardest consequence isn't automatic, but it's not precluded to that.

Still, the Ernie Davis student's mother is worried that if nothing more is done, it could lead to fatal consequences.

"What is this going to come to if the child commits suicide or something horrific happens?" she asked. "I mean, look at all these school shootings. These kids coming in shooting people in these schools. This is why. Because nothing is done. Nothing!"

The Horseheads School District says one important tool to utilize when it comes to reporting bullying is to not wait. The longer you wait, the harder it is for the school to gather information and react.


*Watch the video above for the full definition by New York State.

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