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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

After years of bullying, virtual academy revives autistic student’s love of learning

Kayleigh Lewis, a high school junior who has a form of autism called Asperger’s syndrome, was bullied at North Central to the extent that the family had to pull her out of that school. She now successfully studies from home through a virtual learning program. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Autism has taken big pieces out of Kayleigh Lewis’ life.

From a young age, she struggled in school. She laughed when others cried and she didn’t fit in.

That much she could endure, but not the bullies.

They followed Kayleigh from kindergarten all the way to high school, and they ripped out great chunks of her self-esteem, her health and her hopes for the future.

The schools did their best, but the bullies were as cunning as they were cruel. When teachers’ backs were turned, they served up whispered insults, furtive kicks and other cruelties.

Every day was measured not by what Kayleigh could learn, but by what she could avoid in the hallways at North Central High School.

“In class, I would just sit there and wonder: ‘Do I look good enough for the bullies not to bully me?’ ” the 16-year-old said last week at her home in north Spokane.

By the end of her sophomore year at NC, the bullying got so bad that Kayleigh suffered bouts of internal bleeding and couldn’t rouse herself from bed in the morning.

With 96 absences and a report card filled with D’s and F’s, she and her parents, Sabrina and Greg, finally turned away from the public school system to a virtual learning program through the Omak School District.

And for the first time since she can remember, Kayleigh isn’t too shy to speak up in class.

“I was too afraid to ask a question because I was afraid that someone would judge me,” Kayleigh said.

Now she does it with a few keystrokes.

Finally, in the 11th grade, learning is fun again.

A national problem

For autistic children, judgment comes early and often.

Students with disabilities are bullied at almost three times the rate of other children, according to a study published in 2012 in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine.

In the study, about 46 percent of autistic children in middle and high schools told their parents they were victimized at school within the previous year, compared with just over 10 percent of children in the general population.

Calling it a “profound public health problem,” lead author Paul Sterzing, of Washington University in St. Louis, told the New York Times that the “rate of bullying and victimization among these adolescents is alarmingly high.”

Bullying takes many forms, including verbal abuse, name-calling, epithets and slurs. As children get older, it takes form in online or written statements, threats and physical assault.

According to the advocacy group, the effects are profound. Bullied students lose concentration and interest in class. Their grades fall and they begin to avoid school.

Statistics don’t matter to young children; they only see what’s in front of them.

Tried and convicted by a jury of their peers

Early on, Kayleigh couldn’t handle crowds. “We couldn’t even take her to restaurants,” Sabrina Lewis said.

“We knew she was different the day she was born … I cannot tell you how many therapists we saw in Portland,” Sabrina Lewis said.

“At that point we didn’t realize she had Asperger’s,” Sabrina Lewis said.

For Kayleigh, the bullying began in first grade in Vancouver, Washington. She struggled with lessons and also was much larger than her peers.

“They would call me ‘giraffe,’ ” said Kayleigh, who reached her present height of 5-foot-8 by the fourth grade.

“That put a target on her,” Sabrina Lewis said. “The other kids were half her size, and she didn’t realize that she was hurting them … it was hard to explain boundaries.”

At the same time, Kayleigh found “it was hard to understand things. The teacher had to go slow for me to understand things.”

She also didn’t understand the emotions of others, especially the sarcasm that came out of other children’s mouths at a surprisingly young age.

“They called me ‘stupid,’ ” Kayleigh said.

Her parents confronted Vancouver school officials, some of whom dismissed the issue as “kids just being kids,” Sabrina Lewis recalled.

“It was always the same thing … How do you challenge things you can’t prove?” Sabrina said.

Only when the Lewises and their three daughters moved to Spokane in 2013 did a doctor bring up the possibility of autism, a broad spectrum of closely related disorders with a shared core of symptoms.

Every individual on the autism spectrum has problems to some degree with social interaction, empathy, communication and flexible behavior.

Other children noticed, and the bullying continued at Indian Trail Elementary, Salk Middle School and NC.

Schools spread the word, but who’s listening?

Two weeks ago, in the middle of National Bullying Prevention Month, Spokane Public Schools’ board of directors heard from principals at NC, Lewis and Clark High School and Sacajawea Middle School about the joys and sorrows of social media.

Among the topics was bullying. Administrators shared their concerns and promised to continue efforts to stop bullying in all forms.

“There’s a perception that schools aren’t doing anything, but that couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Shawn Jordan, supervising director of secondary programs and special services for the district.

“Our schools are committed to creating a safe environment that is free of bullying and we are working to seek that all students feel valued for who they are,” Jordan said.

Spokane schools have taken several paths to suppress bullying, from annual training and refresher courses with staff and students to videos to promotion of the “See it, Say It” program that urges students to report bullying to school officials.

The district also has a website with forms, training tools and resources for students and parents. When bullying is identified, the district attempts to sit the parties down and mediate.

“The schools have been great – my issue is not with them,” Sabrina Lewis said.

Once, during freshman gym class at NC, Kayleigh was shoved into a locker and into a shower.

“That PE teacher was on it right away,” Sabrina said. “They do what they can. … It got to the point with Kayleigh that I can’t expect the school district to do more to keep her safe than I’m willing to do myself.”

Usually, the bullying was too stealthy. Almost every day, hair-pulling, insults and kicks followed her from the moment her mother dropped Kayleigh off at NC.

“I felt really powerless,” Sabrina said. “For kids like Kayleigh, it’s practically impossible for them to get a really good education, because they’re so focused on everything else.”

Ultimately, school policies are only as good as students’ willingness to stand up and name the bullies.

They seldom do. Bystanders are often reluctant to step forward. During the same school board meeting, NC principal Steve Fisk recalled breaking up a fight in the hallway.

Looking up seconds later, Fisk “saw four students with cellphones, taking videos.”

The dilemma is often worse for bullying victims, who fear retaliation if they report the incidents to authorities.

In Kayleigh’s case, she internalized until the pain became physical as well as emotional.

“Her stomach was hurting all the time, and she was bleeding every time she used the restroom,” Sabrina said. “We had so many tests, but the doctors said there was nothing wrong with her.”

But there was.

“She was in her room all the time,” Sabrina Lewis said. “We never saw her so depressed and so sad, from the minute we got home and the minute she had to get up.”

The toll was reflected in failing grades and dozens of absences.

Finally, the Lewises moved on.

A safe haven for Kayleigh

There are still bullies in almost every school in the nation.

But Kayleigh Lewis is safe. Through the K-12 online program, she’s connected with Washington Virtual Academies, which is operated by the Omak School District.

“There’s no bullying,” Kayleigh said. “Now I actually just do my homework.” She’s handling the coursework just fine. And though she must make up two classes from last year, she expects to graduate on time in the spring of 2020.

The Lewises’ only regret is not making the move sooner.

Kayleigh hasn’t cut all ties with North Central, where she’s on the bowling team. But schoolwork happens in the living room, at her own pace.

The teachers appear on her laptop. She’s taking classes in literature, history, physical science, photography and entrepreneurship.

“I feel safe here,” she said.