Following her teen son’s suicide, Tina Long leads a charge to change how schools respond to bullying incidents. Photo courtesy Tina Long.
Most of Tyler Long’s teachers loved him because he absorbed classroom material “like a sponge,” his mother, Tina Long, recalled. Her son was a “rule-oriented” elementary school student who had an “obsessive interest” in golfing. Social situations often overwhelmed him, however, and he was frequently the target of harassment by his peers.
While in the sixth grade in Georgia, Tyler was diagnosed with Asperger’s disorder, an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and subsequently placed on a number of medications. According to Long, the prescriptions made her son sleepy and he soon gained 60 pounds.
“We knew he was different,” Long said. “We just made home his safe place, because we didn’t know what else to do.”
The schools did little to halt her son’s bullying, Long claims. The middle school principal, she alleged, told her to write off the harassment as “boys being boys.” A week afterward, she said Tyler was attacked by three students in a school bathroom.
Throughout middle school and high school, the bullying continued. “They pushed him into lockers, they spit in his food,” Long said. “A boy said there were over 200 people doing this to him. … It was every day.”
|Tyler Long in his ROTC uniform. Photo courtesy Tina Long.|
On the night of Oct. 17, 2009, Long was startled by her husband’s screams.
“I just knew I was going to come around the corner and find Troy dead, because of his heart,” she said. Her youngest son was born without a right ventricle, and had underwent numerous surgeries.
“I never in a million years thought it would have been Tyler.”
Her eldest son was 17 years old. His suicide occurred just five weeks into his junior year of high school.
“I’ll never forget watching them take him out of my house, in a body bag,” Long said. “We just didn’t know how bad it was for him.”
Months of nightmares followed.
“I knew that we had to find out what happened to our son,” she said. “Our grief, we just turned it into putting every ounce of energy we had into that.”
Three months after Tyler’s death, Long filed suit against the Murray County School District. “We wanted total disclosure,” she said, “and we wanted to know what happened to our kid and we wanted them in a room where we could ask them questions.”
Barbara Coloroso, author of “The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander,” offered expert testimony during the trial. In a telephone interview with Youth Today, she said that children with ASDs may be more likely to be bullied than other children.
“Their very behavior, their tics, their mannerisms would make them more vulnerable to being targeted by kids who I would say lack the empathy for kids who are different,” she said.
Furthermore, she said, ASD students may not be able to discern the motives of their harassers. Coupled with a desire to fit with an “in group” and a less-than-sympathetic administration, many ASD students are punished for response behaviors that stem from the taunting and teasing of peers, Coloroso said.
|David and Tina Long at the American School Health Association. Photo courtesy Tina Long.|
“They’re not believed, their claims are dismissed, they’re seen as conflicts,” she said. Coloroso referred to the school’s response to Tyler’s bullying accusations in the lunchroom, saying that their solution was to have Tyler eat in isolation away from the student body. “It let the other kids off the hook,” she said. “They never have to be held accountable for their behavior.”
Winston Briggs, Long’s attorney, said the suit alleged that the bullying caused Tyler to commit suicide. “But you cannot bring any sort of state law claims against a school, because it’s a governmental entity, and they are immune,” he said.
Instead, Long had to file a constitutional claim in court, Briggs said. “Even in a case where we can show hundreds and hundreds of acts of bullying and abuse that the school was aware of … the courts basically said the schools are immune from any liability.”
In a 180-page order — the biggest Briggs claimed he’d ever seen — a trial judge made specific findings, stating that Tyler had experienced constant, ongoing bullying that may have led to his suicide. However, since the court could not demonstrate “deliberate indifference” on the school’s behalf, the case was dismissed.
Briggs then filed an appeal to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals. The Department of Justice filed a brief in Long’s support. Nevertheless, the previous district court ruling was upheld, ending a nearly three year legal battle.
Life as an Activist
In 2011, Long and her husband were featured in the documentary film “Bully.” The film’s producer and writer, Cynthia Lowen, first encountered Long at a town hall meeting in Chatsworth, Ga.
“From day one, my experiences working with them on the film, they were really collaborators,” she said. “And it was a real relationship that involved a lot of trust and a lot of mutual work to protect kids.”
As to why Tyler’s ASD diagnosis was not mentioned in “Bully,” Lowen said it was to demonstrate the pervasiveness and seriousness of school harassment, for all types of students.
“We feel that regardless of whether a child has a disability … every single child should be safe and protected once they are ever within their school district,” Lowen said. “Whether or not [Tyler] was on the autism spectrum no way mitigated the school system’s responsibility to ensure his safety.”
Lowen said the Longs’ appearance in “Bully” has allowed them to reach larger audiences about school bullying. “From the very beginning, they were really committed to getting their community together around the issue, and getting people talking about it,” Lowen said, “and really finding a way for parents, teachers and young people to talk about what was going on, to bring transparency to the schools.”
After the film’s release, the family was asked to do media appearances and give lectures.
“I could see little bits and pieces where people were getting it,” Long said. “Students were moved to do something, or schools were moved to do something, or parents were moved to do something. … We knew we wanted to continue that.”
In 2013, Long began a nonprofit called Everything Starts with 1. “That was just such a great way to honor Tyler,” she said. “We wrote a parent guide. … It’s for parents who may have a kid who is being bullied and they don’t know what to do.” The organization is also developing an anti-bullying guidebook for students.
One of the programs she supports is Awareity’s TIPS reporting platform. “We saw that a little after Tyler’s death, and just were amazed at what it could’ve done,” she said. “Those schools that really have the buy-in from the superintendent on down and enabling those students, that’s where we’re seeing the biggest changes.”
Appearing in “Bully,” Long said, showed the family just how much support the anti-bullying movement had. However, she said her interactions with legislators about anti-bullying legislation have been disappointing.
“The federal government told us it was about the states. The states tell us it’s about the federal government,” she said. “Basically, what they told us was that schools are big voting pools, and they didn’t want to rock the boat.”
In the future, she wishes to pursue legislation she is calling “Tyler’s Law,” which would largely focus on reshaping school policies. “I would like to see an easier standard to hold schools [and] bullies responsible,” she said. “I think if the standard was easier to overcome, more schools would step up and change the climate. … It’s a tall order, but we have to try.”
A well-developed reporting platform, school transparency and community involvement are all necessary to combat school bullying on the national level, Long said. “They have got to have a good documentation system to where everything’s not meetings and papers,” she said. “We have got to be able to pull up what’s going on in our schools.”
However, she believes another key factor is student inclusion.
“Let these kids use their creativity to come up with what they need to make this successful,” she said. “Because they can do it, I’ve seen it.”
She encourages parents to speak to their children’s friends because, she said, no matter how tranquil a student’s home life may be, the impact of his or her school experiences could prove dire.
“If we had went to that school and started talking to people about what Tyler was going through, we would’ve known,” she said. “If your kid comes and says ‘I’m getting bullied,’ times it by 10, because it is always much worse than what they’re telling you.”