If Josh Howorth could relay one message to the bullies at his school, he says he'd tell them, "I'm used to it."
Although has been good to Josh, who is autistic, the 15-year-old wasn't exactly looking forward as summer school wrapped up in July to the start of the academic year. .
The sophomore's reluctance to return to his regular routine stems not from a demanding class schedule or intimidating workload, but from a July 24 afternoon bus ride between summer school at Carl Sandburg High School and his pickup location at Andrew. That day, several students decided to take their bullying to the next level, said Josh's mother, Eileen Howarth.
"I picked him up and there was a big wad of gum in his hair," she said. "He said he thought (the other kids) were throwing paper at him. He knew something was happening but he doesn't really … he's not confrontational like that with people. He's not going to yell. He had his headphones on."
Eileen immediately took her son to get a haircut, at which point the stylist discovered that he had not one, but close to a dozen pieces of gum stuck throughout his hair. All—particularly one larger mass—had to be cut out individually.
"Of course, he had been trying to pull it out," she said. "For people with autism, there's a sensory issue there. His head is the most sensitive part of his body. Getting a haircut has always been an issue. It's traumatic for him."
Josh's latest run-in with bullies wasn't his first. His mother said the two moved from Chicago in the Summer 2011 to get out of the Chicago Public School system where Josh's peers regularly tormented him. They made fun of him for a bag he carries, he said, and even called him gay—teasing that's carried over to Andrew High School, he said.
"It's painful," he said, seated on a picnic bench outside of a local coffee shop. "Especially what happened with the haircut. … If you're a bully, you're wrong. They're pretty much gangsters in terms of how mean it is."
Eileen was looking forward to sending Josh to Andrew, she said, and has not been disappointed with the school's attention to detail when it comes to his autism.
"They've honed in on his interests academically," she said. "He's said he likes it a lot better. My only issue is some of these other kids."
Eileen was working at the end of July on getting a copy of surveillance footage from inside the school bus to help identify those responsible for throwing gum in Josh's hair, she said. She was also talking with Andrew High School deans. On July 30, she filed a police department at the .
"It's about accountability," she said. "The kids need to own up to what they did and their parents need to know. … Parents need to educate their kids about special needs and not just that. You're not within your right to do something to someone else with intent to hurt them. Putting gum in someone's hair is not a joke."
Spokesman Carla Erdey said a variety of staff members including counselors, students, deans and teachers are called in to combat instances of bullying.
"Any circumstance that's brought to our attention is investigated fully," she said. "Providing a safe and comfortable learning environment for all of our students is incredibly important and all of our staff take that very seriously."
Among those is Mike Murphy, head dean at Andrew High School, who has been helping get to the bottom of the July 24 incident. He declined to reference the circumstances specifically per district policy, but discussed how bullying is typically handled at the school. Prior to his eight years as dean at Andrew, Murphy was a school social worker, he said.
"Any time we're aware of any misbehavior of a kid towards another kid … bottom line is there has to be some type of investigation," he said. "Bottom line, it's our job and our goal to protect kids. We want kids to feel like they're safe in school and in a safe environment."
He said the police department has a reciprocal agreement with the district in that if a student breaks the law outside of campus, officers notify deans and vice versa. A juvenile detective, commonly known as the School Resource Officer, is also on hand.
"Society is reactionary," Murphy said. "I always say, what do we do to be proactive in terms of talking about the concepts of misbehavior, harassment, bullying, is the most important. Otherwise, we rely solely on trying to hold kids accountable through the consequence system."
The best thing parents, teachers, mentors and students can do to prevent bullying is to make personal connections and relate specific experiences to behavior, he said.
"If kids, in particular, can make those connections, they are able to walk in other people's shoes and tell how that person feels," he said. "If someone doesn't understand the impact of their behavior, they don't think about these things until after the fact. The trick is, we talk about these things before they happen."
Bullying should be handled using a community approach, he said, not merely a school approach. Parents, coaches, neighbors, church pastors and camp counselors need to be involved in these conversations, he said, adding that cyber bullying is increasingly prevalent.
But Murphy has noticed a change in students' sensitivity to bullying, he said.
"Over the last eight years, I would say that I've seen more and more kids speak up and say things about the behaviors and misbehaviors of somebody else," he said. "Kids are more accountable and responsible to each other in terms of what they're willing to tolerate from other kids. They have to realize, 'Hey, I can't do this because guess what? I'm judged by my peers as well.'"
Eileen's hope is that such accountability continues, she said, emphasizing that Josh and others with disabilities are "different, not less."
"This isn't about stringing these kids up and giving them the harshest punishment," she said. "It's more that I'm not going to tolerate this against my son ever again."