Special Report: Bullied Because He’s Different

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. (WAVY) — The mother of a special needs child in the Virginia Beach school system says she can’t understand why he can’t get more protection from bullying.

Cathy Heinz says her son Dallas was repeatedly hit, knocked down and harassed by classmates ever since kindergarten and he’s now in tenth grade.

Investigative reporter Chris Horne was able to get access to his records.

Virginia Beach City Public Schools disputes some of her claims and calls its bullying prevention program “robust.”

She says her son has gone through 10 years of teasing and torment.

Dallas Heinz is now a sophomore at Tallwood High. He says most of the harassment happened while he attended Tallwood Elementary and Brandon Middle.

“Not a fun thing,” he said. Dallas has autism, ADHD and a condition where his speaking voice is louder than average.

“He doesn’t have the ability to control his volume,” his mother says.

Dallas was always smaller than his classmates, another opportunity for them to hassle him back in fifth grade.

“(His classmates would say) ‘We don’t believe you’re a fifth-grader. You are too small and you need to pay us a hundred bucks ’cause you’re lying,’” Cathy Heinz says.

She told us of several other incidents, and the responses she says she got from staff at Tallwood Elementary and Brandon Middle.

“Filling his pockets with grass, shoving him into the bushes, getting slammed into lockers trying to get to the bus. I went to talk to the guidance counselor and she said he’s taking up too much space in the hallway.”

“(I told them) kids are stealing his stuff. (The guidance counselor) said don’t call it stealing. It’s relocating. They’d say it was his responsibility to walk away from the bullying. “

In written responses to our specific questions about Dallas, the school division disputes these claims. They agreed to talk on camera about bullying in general, how it’s defined and how it’s disciplined.

“We certainly define it as any negative behavior that’s intended to frighten or harm a student,” said VBCPS Chief Academic Officer Amy Cashwell, Ed.D.

LINK: Virginia Beach City Public Schools Bullying Policy, Programs

Cashwell says that behavior can be written, verbal or physical, is often one-sided, and happens over a period of time.  Discipline for bullying can range from suspension to expulsion, and it’s treated the same regardless of whether the victim is special needs.

“What makes bullying behaviors different from other behaviors is really that intent to harm.”

Heinz says her son would often be the one getting punishment, especially with his loud voice.

“Kids would figure that out and they would start to whisper his name, or do something, tap on something, or grab something from him to make him yell out in class,” Heinz said. “Then he would get in trouble. These kids thought it was hilarious. I witnessed it in person.”

“Anything that I would do, even if it’s something that a normal kid would do, it’s ‘you’re done,’” Dallas said as he snapped his finger.

The school division says Dallas was disciplined eleven times over his three years in middle school. The offenses included disrespect, obscene language, physical abuse and harassment.

This is part of his disability, we’ve known this since he was four,” his mother says. “How can you discipline him for something that is part of his disability?”

The family is getting support from Cheryl Poe, who founded Advocating 4 Kids.

“Statistics clearly show that if you have a child with a disability the chances of them being bullied increase tremendously,” Poe said, and referenced a recent study that showed kids with autism are three times more likely to be bullied than typical students.

Poe says Dallas’s middle school completely mishandled a bullying incident that brought him to tears.

“The assistant principal said ‘man up, boys don’t cry.’ And for a child on the spectrum that is not what you need to say to them.”

The school district denies that claim, too.

Poe says it’s up to the school system to create a safe learning environment for Dallas, and the administration says it already is.

“He has a right to go to some person and say, this person is making my life hell here, I need help,” Poe said.

“We’re making sure that we’re putting measures into place so that students come to school in a place where they feel safe and are able to learn free from harassment,” Cashwell said.

Heinz organized a meeting last week where a dozen special needs families got to tell their stories to John Eisenberg, the person in charge of special education in Virginia.

They had a list of 11 items they want to be addressed, and a list of 12 corrective actions.

Eisenberg says his department will consider their demands — but also told them not to expect agreement on every single one.

Resources for parents of special needs children: