What kind of kid acts the way I did? Harasses a peer without cause, for sport, and after discovering facts about the victim's home life that should have made them totally off-limits?
In my case, there were two reasons:
First, I suspected that no one would stop me. Most people didn't realize I was such a little asshole. Adults like my kind, hard-working parents considered me harmless -- if sullen and a bit of a shirker -- and most students didn't notice me. My victim Deanna was quiet and kept to herself. When I decided to bully her, I anticipated smooth sailing on those soulless seas.
Second, people with disabilities were theoretical to me. Most kids my age tossed around the word "retard" as a synonym for "jerk" or "loser;" I had never before known a classmate who would find "retard" hurtful. I never considered that people I actually knew could have family members with disabilities. When I found out that Deanna's sister had special needs, I was intrigued, but not enough to change strategies or target. Not enough to stop badgering a blameless girl, or consider that her life might have been challenging enough before my bullying.
I had no empathy touchstone. I had no personal connection to anyone with a disability.
The problem wasn't lack of exposure: there were eight students in the special ed class at my sizable elementary school, and their three teachers frequently brought them onto our enormous shared recess field. But I don't remember any attempts to integrate those students into our community, to help us meet them, talk to them, understand that they were just kids, too. They sat on the grass near us while we played statue maker, but they might as well have been behind a glass partition.
No one ever helped us recognize the shared humanity behind the special ed students' differences. And unfortunately, my personal experience has been that many people still need to be smacked upside the head before they can see the kid under the special needs label.
If I could reach back in time and smack myself, believe me, I would.
On Friday: What parents and teachers can do to help promote understanding and prevent bullying of children with special needs and their siblings.