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Beyond Bullying: When Abuse Becomes Extreme

What can we do to prevent these acts of extreme youth behavior?

In recent years, we have witnessed horrific news stories of parents and adults who failed their obligation to care for their children. Consider the mother from Texas sentenced to 99 years in prison for gluing her child to a wall and beating her; the Maryland mother who killed two of her children and injured another two during an attempted exorcism; the Vermont stepfather who killed his two-year-old stepdaughter by crushing her skull. These actions are reprehensible.

When violence is perpetrated by an adult against children or youth, the wrongdoing is black and white. However, sometimes when youth act out against their peers, it is considered a minor act of bullying or merely growing pains. This could be true in many instances, while of course it doesn’t justify the behavior. But sometimes the bullying becomes more—torture, disgusting or psychopathic—and it pushes the boundaries of what is unthinkable.

A recent story to break in my home state, Maryland, left me speechless and sick to my stomach. Two teenage girls, 15 and 17, bullied a 16-year-old autistic boy, allegedly forcing him to commit sexual acts, threatening him with a knife, brutalizing him…all while capturing the events on video (Washington Post, 2014).

In addition, on at least one occasion, they forced him to walk on a partially frozen pond that they knew was bound to crack. They watched as he fell through the ice several times, all the while refusing to offer him assistance. As local Sheriff Cara Grumbles stated, you’re dealing with someone who, “could go into a kiddie pool and may not be able to get themselves out.” They took pleasure in his struggles, pain and the hardship he endured.

In an interview with the mother of boy (quoted anonymously to keep the victim’s identity private), she said her son does not comprehend what is happening and why the police are involved in this case. He still considers the two girls to be his friends. The brutalization of the boy is believed to have occurred over a period of three months.

There has been much backlash online toward the parents of these girls, but the blame cannot be solely placed at their feet. When you consider all the family, friends, school professionals, and community members who must have had some relationship with these girls, how is it that no one noticed any warnings signs or did anything to stop these tragic events from occurring? The simple answer is that abusive crimes go unnoticed more often than we’d like to think. In this case, the girls’ extreme behavior was not an isolated incident and they were eventually caught. However, considering they filmed, and kept, the footage of what they did to him on their phones, it doesn’t seem they were too worried about hiding their actions.

Schools have the best opportunity for monitoring and early detection of warning signs of violent behavior or emerging psychopathic personalities. One idea that could have a substantial impact on reducing violence, trauma, abuse and bullying would be to put a mental health professional on school premises at all times. Why not require all students who have been suspended, expelled, or truant to meet with a mental health counselor for a risk reduction assessment and plan at least once or twice a year? It is in this group where the schools are most likely to find bullies and those at risk for violent behaviors. We must also involve parents in the risk reduction planning.

It is unlikely that these girls woke up one day and just decided they would abuse this boy. I believe these girls had a history of bullying, teasing, or inappropriate behavior with other children in their school or neighborhood. Maybe they were abused or neglected too. Could they have been having trouble in school? We may find out as this case unfolds. Most likely there were plenty of signs that trouble was brewing, but they went unnoticed as they often do. Until we have a system for violence and abuse prevention, our efforts are always going to be too late. At least in this case, the boy escaped with his life.

Written by: Dr. Kathryn Seifert

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