This piece is the first of the Neighborhood Writing Alliance’s multi-part series focusing on issues affecting individuals and communities with disabilities living on the West and South Sides of Chicago. These stories are part of the Local Reporting Initiative, supported in part by The Chicago Community Trust.


Chicago Public Schools’ Student Code of Conduct includes a clause listing bullying as an inappropriate behavior that can result in various consequences for the offender. But there is no specific policy safeguarding kids with disabilities, who are often targeted more, says Lynn Betts, youth advocacy/transition specialist at the Family Resource Center on Disabilities, a training and information center for parents of children with disabilities.

Betts stated that there is a significant difference in general bullying and bullying a child with a disability. “Students with disabilities may not be able to defend themselves as opposed to non-disabled kids, who can probably fight back or verbalize when they are being bullied.”

She said parents should discuss the issue of bullying and being bullied with their children the same way they discuss issues such as sex and drugs. “Bullying does leave everlasting negative effects on children; some worse than others.”

Alexis Smith, 16, of Humboldt Park, has cerebral palsy, a brain injury caused by a lack of oxygen at birth. She uses a wheelchair in school. She says she’s smart and can do anything anyone else can do, but because she does things differently, she’s made fun of.

She says she was once physically threatened for defending herself in an argument. A student said, “If [Alexis] has enough nerve to open her mouth, she has enough nerve to get hit.” But, Alexis says, “When I try to speak up for myself, it just makes things worse.”

There are other students with specific disabilities who don’t realize they’re being bullied, she said, and she would like to step in and do something. “I want to say ‘The word is not retarded, it’s mentally challenged.’ But it can cause another problem for me.”

Alexis’s grandmother and guardian, Carol Smith, said seventh and eighth grades were rough for Alexis, and they thought high school would be totally different, but it’s not. She addressed the school administration about different things that have been said and done to Alexis.

“It looks like they want to resolve them, but what they say in a lot of instances is that Alexis takes things so personally.” Alexis does take it personally, said Smith, but it’s still all about her being bullied because of her disability. “It’s verbal, not physical, but words can hurt worse than licks.”

The Student Code of Conduct (SCC) for Chicago Public Schools states in its Anti-Bullying clause that all students are to respect other students, staff, and property, and that personnel are to create a safe, civil, and respectful learning environment for all students.

Under the anti-bullying statement, the SCC recognizes that bullying behaviors often focus on particular characteristics such as, but not limited to, race, sexual orientation or gender identity, religion, and disability.

Consequences of excessive bullying can eventually lead to the offender being expelled, depending on his or her age, grade, and the seriousness of the offense.

In June 2010 Governor Quinn signed a law amending the Illinois anti-bullying law (Senate Bill 3266) and creating the Illinois School Bullying Prevention Task Force, attending to overall school transformation, addressing school climate, and culture.

Pennie Brinson

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  • Rachel

    Great article, Pennie! Looking forward to reading the rest. Administrators can be unsympathetic in situations like this, and they sometimes reinforce the oppressive social hierarchy that puts certain students at a disadvantage. Maybe better/better-enforced laws and rules will encourage more action, or at least a more helpful attitude.