School Climate & Safety

Bullying Case Involving Teen With Autism Shows Issue’s Complexity

By Christina A. Samuels — April 22, 2014 1 min read
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For months, police say, two of his fellow classmates tormented a Maryland teen with autism—coercing him to go out on a half-frozen lake where he crashed through the ice, holding a knife to his throat, and kneeing him in the groin—all while recording their actions on a cellphone.

But in an article The Washington Post, the 16-year-old, called Michael in the story, says that he wants to resume his relationship with the two, one of whom he says was his girlfriend. “I don’t feel like they exploited me,” he told the newspaper in the article, which ran April 20. “If I do hang out with [my girlfriend again], I’m going to ask her not to videotape anything.” The teens accused of bullying Michael have been charged with assault.

The article is a must-read, and offers an example of why cases of bullying, which may seem so clear-cut to adult observers, can be far more complex to those involved in the situation. A columnist for the website Slate cautioned against creating a narrative where the teen is just a victim, saying that “something is likely to get lost about the boy’s personality and the reality of what it’s like to be a kid on the spectrum navigating the complicated world of teenage love and friendship. Building a legal case and moral outrage, in other words, requires sacrificing a sensitive, maybe even respectful, understanding of boys like Michael.”

We’ve written several stories about bullying of students with disabilities that might be useful for schools, parents, and students. Children with autism are frequent bullying victims, according to the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. Recently, the U.S. Department of Education has said that severe bullying of a student with disabilities could be a violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. “Victim self-blame” was one of the issues that researchers explored in a synthesis of research on bullying-prevention efforts. And, the American Educational Research Association recently released an analysis of what we know, and don’t know, about bullying.

A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.