Mom on her son being bullied: 'It's particularly gut-wrenching when it's a child with a disability'

Hallie Levine’s son Geoffrey (left, with big brother Teddy on the right) experienced bullying at camp. (Photo: Courtesy of Hallie Levine)

The camp bus doors pulled open and a herd of kids tumbled out, but my 7-year-old son Geoffrey wasn’t one of them. I craned my neck, looking for him. Then I saw him, the very last child, standing cautiously on the bus steps. His hat was pulled all the way over his eyes, and his shoulders were slumped. His face was scrunched up, and his lips were pursed. I knew he was trying very hard to hold it together so he wouldn’t begin crying.

As soon as he saw me, his face relaxed a bit, and then suddenly he was grabbing me around the waist and sobbing into my stomach. “Mommy!” he wailed. “Kids at camp were calling me a moron, and one of them hit me with a ball!”

I silently cursed to myself. Geoffrey had come home upset the previous week when another camper in his group had pushed him down. He had come home with a scraped knee, and I’d called the camp director in a fury, especially when I learned that the other child hadn’t even been reprimanded. I’d been assured that an extra counselor had been added to the group and that it wouldn’t happen again. Yet here was Geoffrey, staring at me with his big teary eyes.

It’s always heartbreaking as a parent to hear that your child is being bullied, but it’s particularly gut-wrenching when it’s a child with a disability.

My son Geoffrey has a condition called albinism, so his body produces low levels of pigment, leaving him visually impaired. Yet he has never let his vision problems hold him back. What he lacks in eyesight, he makes up for with sheer determination, and our family has watched in awe as he’s mastered milestones, including learning how to read, ride a bike, and get his brown belt in kung fu. His two life goals? To be president of the United States and to drive a Lamborghini.

Which is why I hadn’t thought twice about enrolling Geoffrey in a day camp with his 9-year-old brother, Teddy. The camp included activities such as a climbing wall and archery that I knew might be more of a challenge for Geoffrey, but he was excited about trying it. His vision specialist (a teacher who consults with his school to make sure it is meeting all of his vision needs) thought it was a great idea, and she gave the camp a list of simple modifications the counselors could do to make activities more accessible to him if needed.

The first month had gone by with no problem. But then his big brother went off to overnight camp. A few days later, the bullying started. It seemed that one child — a boy named Lucas — was the ringleader, but other kids were joining in too.

I called the camp director again, but I wasn’t 100 percent reassured by his response. He offered to move Geoffrey into another group, which seemed to me ridiculous. Why should Geoffrey move? He hadn’t done anything wrong. Besides, the other kids would just find another child to target as soon as he was gone.

Geoffrey didn’t want to go back either, and after talking to him, I didn’t blame him. Yet his dad, Jamie, and I were reluctant to just let him stay home. We felt it was important that he learn that he can’t just avoid tough situations, but we wanted him to feel safe and secure. We came up with a compromise: Jamie would drive over around lunchtime to talk to the counselor and camp director and see how Geoffrey was doing.

Jamie called me on his drive home. He’d spoken to both the camp director and Geoffrey’s camp counselor, who had admitted that he had witnessed a lot of the bullying but hadn’t known how to handle it. Jamie had also noticed that at lunchtime all the other little boys seemed to completely ignore Geoffrey.

“Did he seem upset by it?” I asked.

Jamie exhaled deeply. “Look, he seemed OK — he was just sitting there eating his tacos,” he said. “But you know that’s not like him. He’s usually talking a mile a minute and totally engaged in everything. It was just heartbreaking to see him this way.”

When Geoffrey got off the bus that day, he was subdued. Yes, camp was a little better. Most of the other boys weren’t being mean to him now — they were just ignoring him. But Lucas had still picked on Geoffrey the entire day. And at the end of the day, when they had all been changing for a swim, Lucas had said, “Raise your hand if you hate Geoffrey,” and most of the little boys had looked at one another, shrugged, and then raised their hands.

I wanted to scream when I heard that, but instead, I emailed the camp director letting him know and insist that he call Lucas’s parents. He didn’t respond. We kept Geoffrey home from camp the next day. I had several more conversations with the camp, all of them unfruitful.

Unlike other camps the family has been to, there didn’t seem to be any sort of accountability system. At the YMCA camp the boys had gone to the year before, for example, we’d had to sign a camper’s code of conduct that said campers would be suspended or expelled for hitting or fighting. But in this case, this behavior didn’t even seem to warrant a call home or a visit to the director’s office.

“Boys will be boys,” John, the 60-something head counselor, told me when I questioned why they weren’t being more proactive to stop this behavior. “Are you serious?” I thought. It was clear John was stuck somewhere back in the early 1980s. This kind of thing happened in my childhood, but in today’s anti-bullying climate, it wasn’t supposed to happen to my son.

Finally, the camp director emailed us back later that day with a response from Lucas’s mom, which included a tepid apology, followed by saying her son “really is a kind boy when you get to know him. His impulses can get the best of him at times; he truly means well.”

For me, that was the last straw. That wasn’t an apology, it was an excuse. It was clear that no one — not the parents, not the camp, and clearly not the kids themselves — was going to take responsibility. And it was unlikely that the situation would change, either. My kid was going to get pushed and harassed until basically he didn’t have a shred of self-esteem left. And there was no way I was going to let that happen to him.

We pulled both boys from camp later that evening. The camp director didn’t make a fuss and gave us our money back without a fight. Clearly, he was glad to get rid of what he likely deemed a problem family.

When I told Geoffrey, I thought he’d be relieved, but he looked distressed. “Mommy, if I’m gone, they’re all just going to pick on Chase,” he said, mentioning his one sort-of friend that he had in his group.

I sighed. He was probably right.

I watched Geoffrey carefully over the next couple weeks for any sort of residual trauma from camp, but he seemed completely fine. His big brother, Teddy, came back from overnight camp, and they both went to one of the day camps they’d gone to last year and had a great time. Geoffrey went back to talking about playing baseball in the fall and making plans to become president of the United States. Clearly, his two weeks of being bullied hadn’t done any long-term damage to his self-esteem.

I have no doubt that Geoffrey will end up doing just fine in life, despite his vision issues. But I’m concerned about the other kids in his camp group. After Geoffrey left, I got an email from the mom of another 7-year-old camper who had also been shoved so hard that he fell down — this time by an older camper who was Teddy’s age. Sure enough, the head counselor, John (of the “boys will be boys” mentality), had witnessed it — and hadn’t done anything about it.

Despite all of this, I still got some pushback from other parents who questioned our decision to pull our kids out of camp, pointing out that there will always be cruddy people who pop up in Geoffrey’s life and that he needs to develop the skills to deal with them. I’m not naive enough to think that he’ll never be scapegoated again, especially given his vision. But it’s my belief that as he gets older, he’ll be better equipped to deal with these situations. And by giving in to bullying, by accepting it as just another reality of life, we don’t do enough as parents or camp counselors to help eradicate it.

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