Trigger Warning for graphic descriptions of violence against people with disabilities, school violence, and victim-blaming.
As evidenced by a recent post, violence of all kinds is a major problem in schools, and school administrations not only frequently fail to respond appropriately to said violence, they’re also often a direct part and/or cause of the problem.
Another example, this time of a lawsuit launched in response to non-sexual violence, was recently sent to me by Kali at Ithaca PAVE. Two years ago, a disabled child was assaulted by a bully on his school bus — as he screamed and cried for help, the school bus driver two seats in front of him watched the attack and did nothing. It took another student to stop the assault. The circumstances of the assault get even more egregious once it’s taken into account that the child’s individualized education plan states that he is to have an aide with him on the school bus — an aide who was most certainly not present on the day of the attack.
Now, years later, the elementary school student remains traumatized, afraid of school, and in need of further services as a direct result of the assault. And the school refuses to make appropriate changes to his education plan.
According to court documents, on May 5, Coolbaugh’s son got on the bus after school and sat three seats behind the bus driver Jeffrey Postle. Another student got on shortly after and sat near him, purposefully pushing into him. The student began slapping and kicking Coolbaugh’s son, which her son apparently interpreted as horseplay and not bullying in nature, the complaint says.
Coolbaugh’s complaint states the student then began kicking and pushing Coolbaugh’s son in a violent manner. He borrowed a pen from Postle and began making threatening stabbing motions toward Coolbaugh’s son.
The complaint states that an on-board video camera captured the events, and that the driver can be seen in the video glancing up in the rear-view mirror at the activity in the bus. The boys were within hearing and view of the driver, Coolbaugh alleges, but the driver made no attempt to stop the harassment or protect Coolbaugh’s son.
The student then began “beating (Coolbaugh’s son) with his fists and violently threw (him) into a seat behind Postle and upon the floor under the seat and then proceeded to pound (him) about the head and shoulders with his fists,” according to the complaint.
Coolbaugh’s son called out for help from the bus driver. The boys were eventually pulled apart by another student, court documents say.
“My client approached the district with these circumstances and the school district responded by failing to provide any of the specific request that my client had made,” Kopko said. He said the district refused to accept changes to the boy’s individualized educational plan. “Our contention is that this boy was emotionally traumatized by this assault such that he is in desperate need of additional educational services. That is the aim of the lawsuit – not so much monetary damages, but to give this child FAPE [free and appropriate public education].”
There are several things going on here, with regards to failures by the educational system to protect the students in its care and the treatment of people with disabilities by society at large.
Most readers here who have ever ridden a school bus will have at some point been on at least one end of bullying and harassment. Many will have at different points throughout their childhoods and adolescences acted as both bullies and victims — myself included among them. Big news stories since I stopped riding a school bus have left me with the impression that little has changed. School buses are places where bullies, harassment, and violence thrive. And as all current or past school bus passengers know, students with disabilities, particularly cognitive or intellectual disabilities, are especially vulnerable.
Bullies seek out targets that are particularly vulnerable and who lack social support. By therefore choosing targets who face systemic marginalization on the basis of identity, they’re simply being perceptive about who society values and will bother to support.
In terms of how the driver in this case responded, I think that we’re talking about a case of basic human decency. A student was literally screaming out in distress, and not only did he fail to pull the bus over and help the student, he didn’t so much as utter a word. Adults, no matter what their occupation or relation to the children involved, are ethically obligated in situations like that to do something. That it took another child to take action is despicable.
But recognizing the bus driver’s individual failure and placing the responsibility where it belongs, it’s also important to note that while things can vary greatly among different school districts, training for bus drivers in handling such episodes is frequently limited or even non-existent. It’s not just an individual failure, but a systemic one. Further, while this was clearly a major episode, recognizing and responding to smaller ones while trying to do one’s primary job — safely driving a bus full of children — can be extremely difficult.
I know that when I was a kid, I would have met suggestions of school bus chaperons with horror. For me, at the time, the bus was a place of freedom. And I still think that places where kids can be kids without facing the constantly watching eye of adults are important. But I now know that a part of that supposed “freedom” was my ability to pick on students more vulnerable than I was and the ability of students less vulnerable than I was to pick on me. I know that a part of the “freedom” was enabling of racist, ableist, sexist, homophobic, classist, and fatphobic harassment. I know that it was watching plenty of assaults, most of which I have probably forgotten, including numerous sexual assaults against my friends — all of which faced no repercussions.
And I know that all of this didn’t happen because “it’s what kids do,” but because it’s what kids think adults do. And I now know that as kids, we sadly weren’t all that far off in our suspicions.
Schools have a responsibility to counteract this perception not only through not tolerating this kind of behavior among students, but also by modeling their own behavior to ensure that the perception is at least a little bit less true. Right now, the Trumansburg Central School District is clearly doing a very poor job on all fronts.
After failing to provide an aide to the student who was explicitly supposed to have been provided with one,[1. It’s unclear whether he was simply left without an aide for the day on which the assault was committed, or generally was not provided with one.] the school has since failed to take responsibility for its disregard for students with disabilities and willingness to treat their needs as secondary to those of other students. The disregard continues, with the school claiming that the assault was not their fault, and therefore it’s not their responsibility to provide the student with a new education plan — even though the student needs such a plan to effectively learn in their school. This final point is what the lawsuit is most directly about. Despite the fact that it should not matter who is responsible when it comes to whether or not the school is obligated to provide all of its students with an accessible and appropriate learning environment, the school’s line is “not our fault, not our problem.”
They’re also engaging in some mighty nice victim-blaming:
The complaint says that the district failed Coolbaugh’s son in several ways, by not protecting him from bullying, not properly implementing the provisions of his IEP, not adequately training and supervising its employees, and other ways. Prior bullying leading up to May 5 put the district on notice that Coolbaugh’s son was facing a dangerous situation and the district could have anticipated further problems, the complaint says.The district denies that anyone could have foreseen the alleged harassment and claims Coolbaugh’s son instigated the altercation, that he was a voluntary participant in the conflict and was aware of the risks of roughhousing on the bus.
So no one could have foreseen that something like this might happen, but dammit, that kid knew what he’d be getting himself into if it did. This kind of talking out both sides of their mouths excuse-making — who knew that this could happen? except the victim, of course, who totally should have known better — ringing any bells for any one else? These are clear echos of rape culture and more proof of how all forms of violence and oppression are connected.
Many members of the community are also doing a poor job modeling basic decency and anti-ableist attitudes. While seeming to be a clear-cut case, the comments on the linked article (trigger warning) are also filled with victim-blaming, both against the child and his mother. They range from calling the mother “sue-happy” to saying that bullying is a part of growing up to arguments that the mother could just place her child in a private school to allegations that this is her fault for not driving him to school herself.
There’s a lot of apologism and classism in these comments — not everyone can afford private school, not everyone has a car, not everyone’s job has a schedule that allows them to drive their kid to school — but also a lot of ableism. The understanding here is that abled kids are “normal” and deserve to have their needs met, while disabled ones do not. The attitude is that students with disabilities, and all people with disabilities, are on their own, with no obligation from society at large to be decent and as equally accommodating to them as it is to those without disabilities. The consensus for these folks is that we — as individuals, as institutions, as a society — do not have the same responsibility to protect people with disabilities as we do towards all other people. In these people’s view, the rights that abled people have to be safe and go about their lives free of violence do not apply to people with disabilities.
And that’s how these kinds of assaults happen — not just because one kid was an ableist jerk, but because far too many of us are generally ableist jerks, who will similarly deny certain people’s bodily rights and autonomy.