NORTH RIDGEVILLE — Parents called for changes to the district’s bullying policy at Tuesday’s school board meeting, galvanized by a Facebook post detailing the bullying of an autistic student at the homecoming dance.
Monica Hernandez shared her son Blake Hustic’s story on Facebook on Oct. 8, detailing incidents he told her about, including a boy who “decided to force a lap dance on him twice.” Since that post, other parents, alumni and students have shared their own challenges, taking their stories to the school board to ask for a change, citing not enough is being done to keep students safe.
“When they are bullied, they are likely to have no idea what they did to cause it,” Hernandez said of students with autism. “When you laugh at them, there’s a good chance they didn’t get the joke. They are logical and want things to be predictable.”
Later, she added, “For some reason, that confusion can be disturbingly amusing to other kids, making it somehow fun to target them.”
Blake said the bullying is something that should never happen — and said he had a friend who attempted suicide and left the district because the bullying was so bad.
While neither Hernandez nor Blake are privy to the punishment the students who harassed him received, Hernandez asked the board to consider a “rehabilitation program” rather than a two- or three-day suspension.
“Giving kids a two-to-three-day vacation for abusing their peers doesn’t make the students that have been victimized or their parents feel safe. They should be required to see a counselor before returning to school if they sexually harass another student,” she said.
She asked for more training for staff, so they can understand how children with autism process the world and can intervene when students like Blake are being targeted — comparing sending her son to school like sending a sheep into a lion’s den.
Other parents agreed.
Jennifer Kovach said her daughter, turning 25 years old next month, still talks about the bullying she experienced that caused her to almost leave the district during her senior year. Kovach’s son, Bradley, has also experienced bullying, and spoke to the board about his friend Daniel “DJ” Spar, 14, who killed himself in 2014 after being bullied.
“This is life-changing for these kids and these kids have years and years and years ahead of them and we are dropping the ball somewhere. We need to fix it,” Jennifer Kovach said.
Following public comments, Board President Kelly McCarthy and Superintendent Roxann Ramsey-Caserio thanked those who had had the courage to speak up. Ramsey-Caserio highlighted the high school’s anti-bullying club and the commendation the district has received in its implementation of the Sandy Hook Promise Start with Hello program, while reiterating the school’s commitment to its students’ safety and security.
“We are especially sensitive to the negative impact that bullying, intimidation and harassment has on students and take serious responsibility to investigate all reports with thoroughness and to enforce the student code of conduct when violations are verified. We also strongly believe in being proactive and educating students about being kind to others and being up-standers who do report bullying.”
Following the program, Hernandez and Blake said they’re hopeful that students and parents will see a change in the district — especially because of the amount of support they have received from the community.
“I’m cautiously optimistic,” Hernandez said. “That’s the best way I can describe it. I really hope things change; I’m super proud of both boys that came forward.”