The Story of a Special Needs Client

The Story of a Special Needs Client

The Story of a Special Needs Client 

This month I am going to share with you the story of one of our clients. We first met this young man’s parents via a frantic phone call after we watched a video of horrific physical bullying that was shared on social media. That phone call happened in October 2020. We have been working with the family ever since. 

The young man was 13 years old and was in 8th grade in middle school in October 2020. His favorite thing on the planet is The Denver Broncos. He throughly enjoyed playing football. This adolescent has a genetic condition that qualifies him for special education and related services. He has been on an individualized educational plan (IEP) since 2010. He has been bullied for much of his schooling, and upon entering middle school in 6th grade, the bullying escalated dramatically.

Our client began being targeted for bullying just two days after beginning his 6th grade year in 2018 and it continued and soared up until the last day he attended school in October 2020. In his 6th grade year he endured a black-eye, a concussion, bruises and multiple injuries all due to bullying. He was continually verbally assaulted. Not only did this student report his torments to his mother, the school principal and the school counselor, but his parents did too. His parents were in contact with school administrators over a dozen times that school year to report the bullying of their son. His parents reached out to the school district just one month after school had started and did not receive any response. They also filed a police report in December when their son suffered a black-eye due to physical bullying.

Our client’s 7th grade year was littered with bullying incidents and reports to school administrators. The administrators failed to come up with any solution to protect him while at school. The physical bullying continued and he came home with scratches, a swollen eye and a concussion. He was verbally targeted for his clothing. His headphones were taken and hidden from him. He was threatened and labeled as a “snitch” for reporting the bullying to the school. He was filmed and the video was distributed on social media labeling him as a “retard.”

In the first week of this child’s 8th grade year his phone was taken, he was verbally assaulted and threatened with physical harm. In September, he was assaulted in the gym by a group of kids who had continually harassed him. He was hit on the back of the head several times and had to leave school after he hit the ground and reported having a bad headache and threw up. He had endured another concussion. Upon his mother discussing the incident with a school administrator she was informed that it was “just playing around.” The bullying continued to escalate with increased verbal harassment and being told to kill himself. On October 19, the bullying target was brutally assaulted in the school hallway and it was filmed and later posted on social media. The plaintiff was hit a total of 27 times and his head began to bleed and start to swell. That was his last day of attending his school.

This young man has endured more trauma than most adults I know. The last physical attack left him with a concussion. His face continued to swell over the next two weeks and he lost functioning of his mouth and was unable to talk. He was diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy and lives with ramifications of that today. He no longer can play football. The adolescent who attacked him has been to court and received sentencing as a result of the violence he inflicted.

This child, our client, is currently a plaintiff in a lawsuit that has been made against his former school district. The bravery and stamina of this young man and his parents is absolutely amazing. Through advocacy of BRRC, the legal expertise of Igor Raykin of The Colorado Law Team, the family has landed here with a lawsuit. The school failed to take any appropriate action to protect this bullying target. The bullying was left unabated and it escalated to a dramatic and permanent level. Even after the brutal attack, the school failed to take measures to provide a safe environment for him to receive an education he is entitled to. 

To learn more about this, please read the story written by The Daily Sentinel in Grand Junction here. A video news story about this family and the lawsuit is also available courtesy of KKCO in Grand Junction here.

Any bullying is unacceptable, and a school and a district not protecting bullying targets after it has been reported in completely irresponsible and tragic. 

By Dru Ahlborg
Executive Director
Bullying Recovery Resource Center

Gas Lighting

Gas Lighting

Gaslighting and Bullying

“Don’t let someone who did you wrong make you think there’s something wrong with you.” — Trent Shelton

Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which a person or group covertly sews the seeds of doubt in a targeted individual or group, making them question their own memory, perception, or judgement. It often evokes in them cognitive dissonance and other changes including low self-esteem.  Gaslighting involves a pattern of abusive behaviors with the intent not just to influence someone, but to control them.

As bullying is an exploitation of a power imbalance with the intent to harm, gaslighting is a method the aggressor can choose to bully someone else. These tactics are sometimes difficult to identify, especially in relation to a bully and their target.  Highly successful bullies are crafty at manipulating and can be masters of gaslighting.  Additionally, gaslighting can be employed not only by the bully and their henchmen, but also by school officials who want to deny bullying.

Gaslighting techniques and examples of them are as follows:

Withholding – The abuser feigns a lack of understanding or refuses to listen or share their emotions.  Bullies will use this as negative peer pressure and bait the target into believing they are a friend and asking the target to do things they don’t feel comfortable doing.  The aggressor will refuse to listen to rational thoughts or reason why the target is unwilling to do the act for their friendship.

  • “I’m not going to listen to that.”
  • “You’re trying to confuse me!”

Countering – The bully will call into question the target’s memory in spite of them having remembered it correctly.  Countering also includes blaming or scapegoating. The tormentor will twist the words of the target and can actually change the narrative so that they now become the wronged party.

  • “You said that last time and you were wrong.”
  • “That’s not what happened.”
  • “You remember that wrong.”

Blocking and Diverting – The perpetrator changes the conversation from the subject matter to questioning the target’s thoughts and controlling the conversation.  Many times, the bully will belittle the target, especially in front of others.

  • “Quit complaining.”
  • “Where did you get a dumb idea like that?”
  • “You’re paranoid!”

Trivializing – The bully attempts to make the target believe that his or her thoughts aren’t important.  Name calling and shaming in front of others often occurs as well.

  • “It’s not a big deal!”
  • “You’re a crybaby!”
  • “You’re too sensitive!”

Forgetting and denial – This is when the bully pretends to forget things that really occurred.

  • “You’re making that up.”
  • “I don’t remember that.”
  • “That’s not what happened.”
  • “Where did you get that idea? You’re lying.”

Gaslighting is emotional abuse and can create deep and lasting scars.  It can cause the bullying target to begin to doubt their own thoughts, memories and actions.  Gaslighting left unabated can cause children to feel confused, hopeless, second-guess themselves constantly and have their sense of self-esteem torn down. 

This form of manipulation can ultimately blame the target of bullying for the actual act.  When gaslighting is perfected, especially by a high-status, social bully, the target can be the child who is ultimately punished for being bullied.  A child who has high-status in the school with their peers and also with teachers and administrators can gaslight their target and ultimately have others believing that the bullying was caused by the target, or even worse, that somehow, they deserved to be bullied.

This form of bullying is not just dispensed by children in schools, but also by adult school officials and administrators.  Putting a stop to bullying takes much work, effort, and time.  When schools don’t want the stigma of bullying identified with them or the trouble and work of dealing with it, they will often turn bullying into conflict to avoid issuing effective consequences.  Conflict occurs with two equal parties where bullying always involves in imbalance of power and is dealt with entirely differently. Schools that don’t properly investigate, issue effective consequences and blame the target are in actuality gaslighting the target.  Furthermore, school officials and administration can also do this to families of bullied children as well.  We have witnessed school officials and administration relying on their credentials and experience in lieu of proper investigation and putting a stop to the bullying.

Gaslighting is insidious and was implemented by the children and the school administrators that bullied my son and our family years ago.  Being gaslit by a group of people with more power and status caused almost an entire community to turn on our family.  We are not the only ones.  Many of our families that we have helped over the years through BRRC have been subjected to gaslighting as well.  This type of psychological warfare can further harm the bullied child and tear a family apart. 

Another group who are frequently gaslit are upstanders to bullying.  (An upstander is a person who speaks or acts in support of a person being bullied.)  Upstanders are frequently told that they don’t understand what they witnessed and are making a bid deal out of nothing.  One of the children who defended my son and attempted to report the bullying was later told he was mis-informed and what had happened to my son wasn’t what he thought it was.

Gaslighting can be extinguished and recovered from.  If a target realizes they are being manipulated in this way and that they are not misinformed or crazy, that can begin the healing as the manipulation will no longer have the same effect on them.  It is important to note that bullies who employ gaslighting techniques successfully will likely not change their behavior.  Putting time and distance between the bully and the target will help as well as working on self-esteem and finding a safe, trustworthy adult and friend.  Sometimes professional help is warranted.  When gaslighting has torn away a strong sense of self and brought on feelings of hopelessness and depression, a professional is needed to help rebuild and rebound.

Understanding and realizing that you or your child has been a subject from this form of manipulation by a bully is the first step at getting away from it.  When a child realizes they didn’t deserve to be bullied, and they have been harmed, they are not wrong or crazy then they can begin to heal.  Bullying of children in any form should not be tolerated and needs to be stopped by adults.

By Dru Ahlborg
Executive Director
Bullying Recovery Resource Center

Back to School and How to Support Your Child

Back to School and How to Support Your Child

Back to School and How to Support Your Child

“Don’t try hard. to fit in, and certainly don’t try so hard to be different …just try hard to be you.”  ~Zendaya

Back to school time can bring on many mixed emotions for both students and parents. For many adolescents it can bring excitement, sadness and anger. For parents, the emotions can be quite similar especially if there are concerns about bullying or potential bullying. School should be an environment of learning, acceptance, safety and fun. Unfortunately for many students it can be a place of fear, anxiety and sadness.

As we prepare to send our youth back into the schoolyards and the classrooms there are ideas to keep in mind and discuss with our children about to help them start the school year on a solid footing.

  • Be a role model. Our children are watching whether they are toddlers or in high school. They learn from us and often pick up our behaviors. As caregivers we should be mindful of how we act toward others. This includes peers, other parents, friends, family members, co-workers, interactions in public (including online) and our partners and spouses.

  • Do not tolerate bullying in your family or in your home. Guide and teach siblings positive ways to manage difficult emotions and to not lash out at one another. If your child has challenging and mean interactions with friends while you are with them, interject and aid in resolving the interaction. If need be, separate the children and speak to the other parent.
  • Do not minimize bullying. If your child confides in you about being a bullying target, bullying others or witnessing bullying incidents, take the opportunity to listen with empathy. Do not brush it off. If your child is targeted, take the opportunity to come up with a plan together and let them know they did nothing wrong. If your student is a bystander or engaging in bullying activity educate your child as to how bullying negatively impacts the target and can hinder feelings of self-worth and belonging. Encourage your child to support targets of bullying by not tolerating it, speaking up, reporting it and offering encouragement to the bullying target.
  • Encourage your child to rely upon their friends. Talk to your child about enlisting friends to support one another. Children helping others offers the strongest defense against bullying behavior. Discussing and forming a pact can be a strong support system during the school day.
  • Encourage your child to tell an adult they are being bullied. Statistics tell us that only 20-30% of bullying targets report their abusers. Encourage your child to tell a trusted adult as quickly as possible.

It is also important to consider internet safety and how to deal with cyberbullying as well. It is an incredibly challenging problem and can happen anywhere, anyplace and at anytime. Cyberbullying spreads quickly and has the same negative effects on all involved as any other type of bullying. It should not be tolerated and be addressed quickly. Some advice to also keep in mind in regards to cyberbullying are:

  • Do not punish your child. If your child has been a target of cyberbullying do not threaten to take away their device or cut their online time. Doing this may make them not want to tell you about any bullying that happens in the future.
  • If there is online evidence, save it as screenshots. This becomes incredibly helpful if it is necessary to report the event.
  • Talk to your child about the experience and take the time to listen. Studies prove that having just one person listen and support a child who has been bullied helps them better handle the event in a healthy way.
  • Report the cyberbullying. Most social media platforms have a process for reporting bad behavior. If the cyberbullying involves a classmate, report it to the school. If the bullying involves threats of physical harm, consider reporting it to the police.
  • Take quick action. Whether your child is the target, a bystander or the perpetrator of cyberbullying, quick action should be taken. Bullying in any form is never okay. It is an opportunity talk about empathy and the harm caused by bullying. Discuss it with school officials or a counselor to gain additional help and ideas.

Taking the time to partner with our children during this time of transition is key. An open dialogue about new routines and expectations is always a good idea.  Stress and anxiety are common. Let your child know you are there to help them succeed and will be available when they feel anxious or need help.

If your child is being bullied and the school isn’t helping, please contact BRRC. We can help.

By Dru Ahlborg
Executive Director
Bullying Recovery Resource Center

How Peer Support and Social Emotional Learning Reduce Bullying

How Peer Support and Social Emotional Learning Reduce Bullying

How Peer Support and Social Emotional Learning
Reduce Bullying

Many schools have signs on the walls in the school like, “no bullying zone” or “zero tolerance for bullying.” There is an anti-bullying week and most likely an assembly about how to stop bullying. Then, sadly, it’s done. The message stops, attention shifts away from bullying, and it is no longer a priority. It takes a commitment from schools and districts to stop bullying. A sign and an assembly are not enough. It takes training, commitment, time, energy, and a shift in culture to curb bullying. Even schools who do all those things well will still have bullying within their buildings. The commitment comes from seeing it through. It comes from investigating all bullying events, from having proper policies and procedures in place and adhering to them. It comes from having an open dialogue about bullying and a willingness to make school a safe place for all students.

“Experts agree that any anti-bullying program is only as strong as a school’s commitment to it. To get results, you have to put in the time.”

What Doesn’t Work, and Why:

The annual anti-bullying assembly: There are several reasons why this has very little or no impact. Students and staff can feel this is simply checking off a box without any real commitment to the problem. Creating a culture where bullying is less likely to thrive takes much more than a speaker, an assembly, and an hour of time.

The target and the aggressor “work it out”: This is wrong on so many levels and I will be as brief as possible. First, bullying always has an imbalance of power and having two children work it through when one party is more powerful will never work. We don’t ask adults who are targets of assault to “work it out” with the person who harmed them. We should NEVER ask that of our children.

Peer-led Anti-Bullying Efforts

Bullying is much more likely to be witnessed by students. The savvy child who engages in bullying acts is much more likely to torment their target(s) in the bathroom, hallway or on social media. Other students are often the ones around who witness bullying. Peers also have a greater impact on telling the bully to stop than an adult.

Peer-advocacy anti-bullying groups allow a group of students to look out for other students who may be bullied, excluded, or otherwise isolated by speaking up for them, advocating for them, and including them in activities.

Creating peer-advocates helps change the culture of schools. Research about bullying suggests that it is not generally driven by a few bad apples but rather by a culture that finds harassment and bullying acceptable. Peer groups where the students produced their own ideas and projects can show remarkable success. When children believe in their own ability to solve problems, they better understand when a problem needs adult help.

Arming socially influential and willing students with nonviolent communication and intervention skills has proven effective for schools and school cultures. Students who have been targeted for bullying report that supportive actions are the most helpful things a peer can do. Peer-advocates can spend time potential targets, talk with them and steer them away from a bad situation.

Social and Emotional Learning (SEL)

Social and Emotional Learning is the process through which children and adults acquire the knowledge, attitudes, and skills they need to: establish healthy identities; recognize and manage their emotions; demonstrate care and concern for others; establish positive relationships; and make responsible decisions. There is much research and information about SEL that I will not go into, however integrating the tenants of SEL into the academics and culture of schools has proven to reduce bullying. Bullying prevention that is integrated throughout the curriculum makes an impact. Novels and fictional characters can be explored for concepts around bullying, mental health, strength and resiliency.

The power of peers should never be underestimated. Students working together toward a kinder culture can move mountains. I passionately believe that buddy benches and a “no kid eats alone” rule in cafeterias save lives. Schools that couple student-led programs with appropriate social and emotional learning opportunities can shift cultures where bullying is less likely to exist, and it will be stopped much quicker. Parents and caregivers should feel empowered to ask their child’s school about bullying prevention, and if the answer isn’t sufficient, how they can help to create a safer environment for all students.

By Dru Ahlborg
Executive Director
Bullying Recovery Resource Center

Understanding Bullying and the LGBTQI+

Understanding Bullying and the LGBTQI+

Understanding Bullying and the LGBTQI+ Community

And What YOU Can Do

45% of LGBTQ youth seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year.

June is Pride Month.  Pride Month commemorate the Stonewall Riots also known as the Stonewall uprising that occurred in June 1969. When police invaded the Stonewall Inn, a famous LGBTQ spot on June 28, 1964, the public did not stand passively by. Many historians agree this was the spark that launched the LGBTQ rights movement in the United States. Pride month is a celebration when the world’s LGBTQI+ communities come together and celebrate the freedom to be themselves.  The month and the festivities are named “pride” due largely to a bisexual woman named Brenda Howard. Activist Brenda was nicknamed “mother of pride” and she organized the first parade to commemorate the Stonewall uprising.

 

LGBTQI+ youth = lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, intersex, nonbinary or otherwise gender non-conforming

It probably comes as no surprise to most people that those who identify themselves in the LGBTQI+ community are a greater risk of being bullied than almost any other subset of youth.  In 2019, stopbullying.gov reports that nationwide more U.S. high-school students who self-identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual report having been bullied on school property (32%) and cyberbullied (26.6%) in the past year than their straight peers (17.1% and 14.1% respectively.) Also reported was that more LGB student (13.5%) than straight students (7.5%) reported not going to school because of safety concerns.

 

“We must recognize that LGBTQ young people face stressors simply for being who they are that their peers never have to worry about.” ~ Amit Paley (he/him) CEO and ED of The Trevor Project

The Trevor Project published the 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health recently. I highly encourage taking looking through it. The study points to the harms, stressors and mental health challenges that this community faces much more than those who identify as straight. It points to a crisis we have in our country and how these young people are struggling with suicide, depression, anxiety, access to mental health care, physical harm, and discrimination.  There are two items I want to note since they are directly related to bullying and harassment. The first is 36% of LGBTQ youth reported that they have been physically threatened or harmed due to either their sexual orientation or gender identity. Secondly, 65% of LGBTQ youth reported that they have experienced discrimination based on their sexual orientation.

 

“Recent political attacks aimed at transgender and nonbinary youth have not only threatened their access to health care, support systems and affirming spaces at school they’ve also negatively impacted their mental health.” ~Dr.Jonah DeChants (he/him) Research Scientist, The Trevor Project 

WHAT CAN WE DO?

As humans, all of us like to feel safe, accepted and cared for. It is up to us, the adults, to lead the charge to create safe environments for LGBTQ+ youth. These environments need to exist in home, schools and any community where youth are part of.

Stopbullying.gov offers the following ideas for building these environments. We can all play a role in preventing bullying and helping LGBTQ+ youth feel physically and emotionally safe.

  • Encourage respect for ALL students.
  • Prohibit bullying, harassment, and violence against ALL students.
  • Schools should engage in social-emotional learning activities. This will help foster peer-relationships and empathy among students.
  • Create and identify safe spaces where LGBTQI+ can receive support.
  • Encourage and help organize student-led school clubs that promote a safe and welcoming environment. (Schools MUST allow these clubs if they have other “non-curricular” clubs or groups at the school.)
  • Ensure heath education materials include HIV, other STD/STI and pregnancy information that is relevant to LGBTQI+ youth.
  • Use inclusive language and avoid making assumptions. Use of gender-neutral pronouns like “they/them” instead of “he/she” or “him/her.”
  • School administrators and teachers should use a student’s chosen name and pronoun.
  • School staff should be trained to create safe and supportive school environments for all students, including LGBTQI+ youth.
  • The school should have resources and access to community-based providers who are experienced in youth health services including medical, counseling, social and psychological services and HIV/STI testing,

The 2022 Trevor Project National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health stresses the importance of access to affirming homes and schools for our youth. The report states “LGBTQ youth who lived in an accepting community, had access to LGBTQ affirming spaces and/or felt high social support from family and friends reported significantly lower rates of attempting suicide in the past year.”

 

“LGBTQ youth reported lower rates of attempting suicide when they felt more supported by their friends and family.” 

The role that parents, caregivers and caring adults have in a young person’s life can provide the love, acceptance and stability that our LGBTQ youth need in these very challenging times. The five most common ways that LGBTQ youth reported feeling supported by their parents or caregivers are:

  • Been welcoming to their LGBTQ friends or partners (62%)
  • Talked with them respectively about the LGBTQ identity (48%)
  • Used their name and pronouns correctly (47%)
  • Supported their gender expression (45%)
  • Educated themselves about LGBTQ people and issues (35%)

Just one supportive person in a LGBTQI+ person’s life can be difference between suicide and life. It is important to support our youth at home and at school. You can be that person for someone. Happy pride month!

 

By Dru Ahlborg
Executive Director
Bullying Recovery Resource Center

Teen Mental Health

Teen Mental Health

Teen Mental Health
We Need to Talk About it

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. As a parent of two children and an Executive Director of a charity that combats bullying, I am deeply passionate about mental health and specifically about adolescent mental health.  I am now trained in Youth Mental Health First Aid and am grateful to have participated in the “We Got This” Youth Mental Health Summit in Denver this month.

The stressors and anxiety our teens are under has never been greater and it is taking the ultimate toll. Over the past three years, Colorado’s teen suicide rates have risen 58%, making Colorado the sixth-worst state for teen suicides according to a study by the United Health Foundation. (This is nearly double the national growth rate!)  Furthermore, suicide is the second leading cause of death in the United States—starting with children at age 10 all the way up to adults at age 33. Mental health goes beyond suicide. The World Health Organization in November 2021 announced these key facts:

  • Globally, one in seven 10-19-year-olds experiences a mental disorder, accounting for 13% of the global burden of disease in this age group.
  • Depression, anxiety and behavioral disorders are among the leading causes of illness and disability among adolescents.
  • Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among 15–19-year-olds.
  • The consequences of failing to address adolescent mental health conditions extend to adulthood, impairing both physical and mental health and limiting opportunities to lead fulfilling lives as adults.

These figures are alarming! Our youth are crying out for help.

I often speak about how we as parents and caregivers are required to outfit ourselves in a superhero cape when it comes to taking care of our kiddos. In bullying, it is up to us as adults to stand up for children who are targets of bullying. It requires us to stand tall, become brave and take some deep breaths and methodically advocate for our kids. The superhero, all hands-on deck mentality applies for children burdened with mental illness as well. It should not come as a surprise that children who are relentlessly bullied very often experience depression, anxiety, PTSD and suicidal ideation. 

What follows are some wonderful pointers I heard from The Liv Project in their presentation entitled “Fearless Communication and Parenting – Pushing Past Stigma to Support Those You Love.” (Make sure you read about the Liv Project as our featured Champion of the Month below.)  Honey Beuf, Executive Director of The Liv Project offered this insight when helping our teens and youth with mental health concerns:

  1. If you as a parent sense something is wrong, then it probably is.
  2. Pay attention to changes in behavior. (Mood, sleeping behavior, eating, grades, change in friends, no friends, etc.)
  3. Be on the lookout for children having a lack of interest in things that used to interest them.
  4. It is not your problem to solve, but rather an opportunity for you as a parent or caregiver to listen, express empathy, love them no matter what, and really listen to all that they are willing to share.
  5. Take the opportunity to place suicide numbers in their phone.
  6. Know that talking about suicide does NOT make someone commit suicide. Being able to talk about those feeling will bring a sense of relief.
  7. Almost everyone has a crisis. They need your help.
  8. Ask your child how they are feeling emotionally rather than “how was your day?”

Parents and family members play a pivotal role in helping children navigate depression, anxiety and stress. It is worth our energy and time to ask ourselves some questions and model positive behavior:

  • Am I normalizing talk about mental health? 
  • Do I ask others for help? 
  • Do I offer an environment that is judgement-free and caring? 
  • How do I de-stress? 
  • Am I open about my own mental health struggles?
  • Do I make time to listen?
  • Do I lecture or do I listen?
  • Do I empathize or do I problem solve?
  • Do I use social media to boost my self-esteem, or does it make me anxious? 

Helping our youth with their mental health struggles is a partnership. It requires patience, understanding, deep care and love. It isn’t an easy walk and necessitates us to keep that superhero cape firmly attached around our neck. It requires an empathetic ear and some self-reflection too. The journey is laborious AND it is most certainly worth it.

By Dru Ahlborg
Executive Director
Bullying Recovery Resource Center