WILKES-BARRE — The resounding message when a special education attorney and the lead prosecutor in the Jerry Sandusky child sex abuse case spoke at King’s College Tuesday night was that awareness goes a long way in dealing with bullying and child abuse.
Heather Hulse and Joseph McGettigan, of McAndrews Law Offices in Berwyn, gave presentations on those matters in the Burke Auditorium of the McGowan Business School. The seminar was presented by the college and the Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children of Luzerne County.
Hulse, a special education attorney for 17 years, explained that children with special needs are often the targets of bullying in her lecture entitled “Bullying 101: Know Your Rights and How to Protect Your Child.”
Hulse led off the lecture with a statistic that 160,000 students miss school every day due to fear that they’ll be attacked or intimidated by another student. She then highlighted the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act or IDEA of 2004, which requires all students covered by the statute to be provided with a “free, appropriate public education” in the least restrictive environment.
The act mandates that institutions investigate and enact discipline for reported instances of bullying, but it also asserts that the schools may — but are not required to — take preventative action, which Hulse said worries her. “We’ve had to force the school districts to address the bullying,” Hulse said.
Getting the word out
Hulse preached the importance of spreading information to schools, victims and even bullies in addressing a situation of abuse. She explained that for many students who are being bullied, measures can be taken to move them to another district or to consider private school.
“(Their school) is no longer safe for them,” Hulse said. She noted that in many cases, there are funds set up to help parents of victims with tuition for a private school or to afford socialization counseling, for children who have autism or Asperger’s disease, to prevent further bullying.
Hulse also presented a list of signs that a child is being bullied or is bullying another child that parents should be aware of.
Signs of bullied children include difficulty sleeping, declining interest in school, sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations, decreased self-esteem and self-destructive tendencies. Hulse said parents should communicate with the school, being vigilant about documenting their complaint in writing, and that schools should do things as simple as separate a child from a bully physically, encourage a positive circle of friends for a child and encourage other students to stand up for their peers.
In addition, parents can seek self-advocacy counseling to help their children stand up for themselves.
Signs of a bully
Signs that a child might be a bully include being quick to blame others and unwilling to accept responsibility, lacking empathy and compassion, having immature social and interpersonal skills and wanting to be in control.
“Bullying is a learned behavior,” Hulse said. “We can unlearn it.” She went on to note that parents of bullies often have no idea what their child is doing and that bullies are often just as much in need of help as victims.
Another thing Hulse stressed was training for teachers, who often do not see bullying as it does not always occur in the classroom. “Teachers need to be aware that it’s happening outside the classroom and to be on guard.”
Hulse passed the floor to McGettigan, the lead prosecutor in the Sandusky sexual abuse trial, and he proceeded with his lecture on “How to be a Leader in Preventing Child Abuse: The Prosecution of Jerry Sandusky.”
Convicted in June 2012 of sexually abusing 10 pre-teen and teenage boys, Sandusky, a former Penn State defensive football coach under Joe Paterno, was sentenced to 30 to 60 years in prison.
The animated, long-time criminal prosecutor applauded the work of his colleague, noting that her civil arena allows for her to help people in proactive ways where for many years, he could only put offenders in jail.
“The indicators of sexual abuse are not that different from the indicators of bullying,” McGettigan said. He explained that the victims of the Sandusky case numbered in the dozens if not into the hundreds, and that a predator like Sandusky operated in ways McGettigan called “insidious, clever, even Machiavellian,” targeting children of single mothers who did not have a father figure in their lives.
He described Sandusky’s method as “grooming” his victims, meaning he would introduce intimate touches so slowly that children would become accustomed to him to the point that he could prey on them. In this way, McGettigan noted, children were unaware of the wrongfulness of what was happening to them.
McGettigan made a point to say he does not condemn Penn State University or even Sandusky’s foundation “The Second Mile” for what Sandusky did, but he does feel more people should have had their eyes open to their surroundings.
“I don’t know if (sexual abuse) can be eradicated,” McGettigan said. “But what we can do is minimize the abuse and the damages it causes.” He went on to say that his best advice to individuals who might help prevent abuse is, “You can be observant.”
Reach Matt Mattei at 570-991-6651 or [email protected].