By George Byron (“Geordie”) Griffiths

Minnesota’s proposed anti-bullying statute has caused me to reflect on my years as a special education paraprofessional in Crosby-Ironton. As part of my job, I accompanied students who had disabilities to class, modified their assignments, and supervised them in the lunchroom and at recess.

One might think I also would have had to intervene when the children I supervised were picked on in school. Growing up in the big city, I was the skinny, nerdy kid with eyeglasses – often the object of ridicule from the bullies in my school. If I was subjected to mockery, I just assumed that kids with profound disabilities would have to endure much worse. But in the three years I worked as a paraprofessional, I never witnessed a single incident of bullying towards them.

It would be tempting to credit small-town values. But the supportive atmosphere in the Crosby-Ironton school wasn’t the norm everywhere in small-town north-central Minnesota. I saw this first-hand when I accompanied Eric and the Crosby-Ironton basketball team to an away game. Eric, who has Down syndrome, was a team manager. His main job was to bring the players water bottles during time-outs.

As the Crosby-Ironton team entered the gym, a member of the host team pointed out the “retard mascot.” I’d been lulled by the acceptance that usually surrounded Eric. The sneer was unexpected, and it stung. But I wasn’t the only one offended: A Crosby-Ironton team member made a bee-line for the jeering player. I don’t know what words were exchanged, but at the end of the game, as both teams exchanged “good game” hand-slaps in single-file formation, the initially disrespectful player gave Eric an enthusiastic, and genuine, “high five.” Eric hugged him back.

That good-natured Eric was a valued member of the team -- not just some token “mascot” -- was brought home later that spring. Eric’s parents planned an 18th birthday party for him and invited the team, unaware that the school’s “sweetheart dance” was scheduled for the same night. Postponing the party was not an option as Eric is obsessive about keeping to a schedule. So, the young men on the basketball team did what good friends do: they skipped the dance so they could gather around Eric and sing to him as he blew out the candles on his cake.

Eric’s presence among them clearly helped his classmates deepen their own humanity. They were better people for having known Eric. But I’m afraid Eric’s story is exceptional: students with disabilities don’t typically receive such acceptance. That’s why I’m concerned that students with disabilities are not protected from bullying under Minnesota’s current anti-harassment statute for schools.

I don’t have any illusion that simply passing the Safe Schools for All will magically stop bullying in Minnesota classrooms. But the proposal sets a standard and requires training so teachers learn how to effectively intervene. And by specifically listing disability, along with other attributes such as sex, race, religion, sexual orientation, and physical characteristics, the proposal makes plain that, when it comes to bullying, absolutely no exceptions should ever be tolerated.

Eric’s story establishes that a bully-free school is an attainable vision. Safe Schools for All introduces the possibility that the way Eric and his friends treated each other, and changed the attitude of at least one bully, can indeed become the norm.
Griffiths is a photographer based in the Twin Cities. For the past 15 years, Griffiths has photographed three young people from Crosby-Ironton who have disabilities: http://www.childrenborntochallenge.com/.
Copyright © 2009 by the Minnesota Editorial Forum. 5/09