March 22, 2013 1:37PM

When A Public School Becomes the Bully

We expect our schools to keep our children safe from bullies. But what should parents do when their assigned government school becomes the bully?

That's what happened to the parents of Eileen Parkman, a Hawaiian second-grader who courageously stood up to several fifth-grade boys who were kicking and stomping a defenseless autistic child as he was curled up in the fetal position. The bullies then set their sights on Eileen, whom they threw to the ground and stepped on. The Maui Autism Center gave her an award for her bravery, but the boys continued to hit and kick her and throw balls at her face on several subsequent occasions. School officials at Kamali'i Elementary in Maui were apparently unable to stop the bullying, so Eileen's parents decided to pull her out of the dangerous environment.

That's when the school officials became bullies themselves:

It took Sean Parkman a while to remove Eileen from enrollment at Kamali'i. After the first incident, he was told the situation would be remedied, he said. But when Eileen endured more retaliation, Parkman said he received no help from school officials. He and his mother offered to help serve as school field monitors, but they were turned away, he said. Parkman said school officials told him that if he pulled Eileen from the school, then officials would report him to Child Protective Services because he could be violating school attendance policies. So, he held off. But after taking Eileen to doctors several times after getting beaten, doctors warned Parkman that Eileen was not safe. He then removed her from the school.

In other words, the school officials gave the Parkmans an untenable choice: keep your daughter in an unsafe environment, or men with guns might come take your daughter away. After a few trips to the doctors, the Parkmans decided to risk the possibility of the latter rather than have their daughter continue to face the certainty of the former.

It's impossible to know why exactly the school officials behaved as they did—they clammed up when reporters started asking questions—but it would not be surprising if the officials were at least partly motivated by the state's school funding formula, which allocates money based partially on enrollment. Fewer students mean fewer dollars. If they can't please parents who want to leave, school officials can threaten them with a parent's worst nightmare.

If Hawaii had had a school choice program, most of the grief following the initial incident could have been avoided. If the school officials knew that the parents had other options, they would have had to remedy the situation in order to keep Eileen at their school, and they would have had no recourse to threats. Fortunately, the Parkmans had the resources to provide a tutor for their daughter, but many families don't have that option. Discussions of school choice often revolve around academic performance, but there are other reasons that a family might want to choose another school and bullying is one of them.

Unfortunately, this bullying incident is far from unique. Bullying, especially of students with special needs, is abhorrently pervasive:

Sixty percent of students with disabilities reported being bullied compared to 25 percent of the general student population, according to a 2008 citation from the British Journal of Learning Support, which was cited in the 2011 report, "Walk a Mile in Their Shoes: Bullying and the Child with Special Needs." According to the book "Insights from across Fields and around the World" (2009), only 10 studies have been conducted in the U.S. on bullying and developmental disabilities. All studies found that children with disabilities were two to three times more likely to be victims of bullying than their nondisabled peers.

School choice is not a panacea for all the challenges facing our education system, but it can mean the world to a child who can escape from her tormentors and learn in a safe environment.