A shift to restorative justice could help both the bullied and the bully

Nine years ago, we got a call from a young Altamont mother who was concerned that people in the community understand autism. Stephanie Carter’s then-6-year-old son, Austin, had been diagnosed on the spectrum.

When she was out with her son, Ms. Carter told us then, she often felt like people were judging her because Austin would throw fits. She found that frustrating because, she said, he was really a good kid.

Austin couldn’t pick up on the raised eyebrows, the sideways glares, or the disapproving looks that took a toll on his mother.

“He’s a lot like everyone else,” Ms. Carter told us then. “He cries when he’s sad, he smiles when he’s happy. He just has a different way of expressing himself.”

We wrote about autism then. Getting its name from the Greek word for “self,” autism is loosely defined by three types of solitary behavior — impaired social interactions, poor communication skills, and repetitive behaviors. People are born with autism; it is a neurodevelopmental disorder, not a disease.

We’ve written about autism since then. And Ms. Carter updated our readers a year ago on the wonderful growth of her son. But it isn’t enough.

Last week we got another call from Austin’s family. Austin, 15, is now a sophomore at Guilderland High School. He has suffered from bullying; an epithet-laced June 1 Facebook post from a schoolmate threatened to kill him and resulted in the arrest of the writer.

Austin is not alone. More and more people are being diagnosed with autism and a disproportionate number of those on the spectrum are bullied. The national Centers for Disease Control estimate that one in 68 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder; it is far more common among boys, at one in 42.

A 2012 report from the Interactive Autism Network found 63 percent of children with autism are bullied at some point in their lives; they are three times more likely than their siblings without autism to be bullied. Although bullying of autistic students occurs at all grade levels, the report found, it is worst in fifth through eighth grades, the middle-school years.

Janine Kruiswijk, executive director of the Autism Society of the Greater Capital Region, said that autistic children often don’t understand “the hidden rules” that govern their society. Many of them miss nuances and think concretely.

She gave the example of a kid at the playground smiling and saying to an autistic classmate, “Go pull that person’s pants down.” The autistic child may read the smile literally — that this activity is a happy, acceptable one. “They may do it,” Kruiswijk said, and then be ridiculed or punished.

She also said, “It’s harder for a child on the spectrum to understand what has happened.”

Kruiswijk termed the message directed at Austin on Facebook “violent” and commended the Guilderland Police for making an arrest. “You have to take a strong stance,” she said. “If you don’t, the message is: It’s OK to do that.”

It’s wrong to put the responsibility on the individual who is being targeted, Kruiswijk said. “Schools have to take it seriously,” she said of bullying. “Power builds. Each time, it’s easier to go a little further, a little further — until you have a tragedy. Sometimes students commit suicide because they feel so hopeless and helpless.”

This lesson has hit home for Kruiswijk in a painful way. She has an autistic daughter, Molly, who had progressed to the point where she was able to live in a group home with roommates. One of the roommates turned out to be a bully who took increasingly aggressive actions, ultimately burning the home where Molly lived. “He set a fire in the house. The arson was an act of aggression….He stated he did not like Molly.”

Molly, at 28, is now back in her childhood home. “She is living with us,” said Kruiswijk. “She has lost a lot of confidence. I hope one day she’ll feel confident again.”

Kruiswijk points out that people with autism often feel vulnerable to begin with so bullying can have a worse effect on them than others.

What can we do?

We’ll return to the place where we started nearly a decade ago when Ms. Carter asked us to inform the community about autism.

“It’s a community issue,” said Kruiswijk of bullying. “The needs of both the victim and the victimizer need to be met….A clear message needs to come from the community that bullying is not acceptable.”

We urge our schools and our court system to continue their vigilance. Victims often become bullies. While there must be a clear message that bullying is wrong, the bully must also be given a chance to redeem himself. Punishment alone can perpetuate bullying.

We know from years of covering bullying incidents that, just as bullies can become more and more aggressive if not stopped, in the way Kruiswijk described, so, too, can bystanders be empowered when they intervene.

Oskar Schindler, whose life was popularized in a Steven Spielberg film, was a German businessman, a bystander to the horrors of the Holocaust, until he saved some Jewish refugees by having them work in his factory; he was emboldened by his success, and ended up taking great personal risk to save more than a thousand refugees.

The Guilderland schools have a peer-mentoring program where kids are taught to notice more vulnerable students and befriend them. “They can make a difference, noticing what it is like to see someone in the lunchroom by themselves,” said Kruiswijk. “Kids with autism have benefitted from peer mentoring programs and become peer mentors themselves,” she said.

The younger that kids start to help and stand up for others, the better. We believe the reason bullying peaks in middle school is because that’s when children are becoming self-governing — no longer under the strict rule of parents and teachers and not yet fully able to control themselves. If mentoring is engrained in young children, those middle years will be better for schools and society at large.

Schools are places where, when students make mistakes — even serious ones, like bullying — they can learn the behavior is wrong and make amends.

But what if the lessons aren’t learned? What if threats are made like the one against Austin? Kruiswijk is right that the school and the larger community need to condemn such actions, swiftly and strongly. At the same time, the perpetrator needs a clear path to follow.

“It’s one thing to say you’re sorry,” she said. “It’s another thing to say you’re sorry and make it right….The apology is just the words. You have to end with action.”

Krukswijk is right, too, that such restorative justice is a cultural shift. We hope our local court system is up to the task.

Even Austin’s mother, Stephanie Carter, his protector and advocate for all these years, told us she would like to see the boy who was charged with harassment get any counseling he may need; she hopes the probation department will initiate that process.

The 15-year-old who victimized Austin is not yet an adult in the eyes of the law; his brain is not fully formed, nor his direction in life. If he is truly sorry for his actions, he should be given a chance to make amends.

That gives Austin and others like him the best chance of being safe and respected, as they deserve.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer

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