News of a vicious beating of a 12-year-old autistic boy at Liberty Middle School reverberated through the Missouri Capitol on Wednesday.
In a heated discussion in the Missouri Senate, a trio of Republican lawmakers lambasted the school and its administrators who they believed failed to do enough in a bullying case that sparked warnings about a month ago.
The incident further bolsters the push for legislation to require schools to strengthen policies against bullying, said Sen. Eric Schmitt, a St. Louis County Republican. And if that doesn’t get school administrators’ attention, Schmitt said, lawmakers will consider hitting them in the pocketbook.
“Your job is to make sure a kid isn’t beaten within an inch of his life by another kid that you were warned about,” Schmitt said of Liberty Middle School administrators. “All the dollars you claim you need from the state budget, some of that is at risk if you don’t do your job.”
Blake Kitchen, 12, was severely beaten during breakfast at Liberty Middle School by the same child who allegedly had been bullying his older brother, said his mother.
Destiny Kitchen’s family had complained in writing to the school last month about the bully.
Blake has Asperger’s syndrome, a mild form of autism. One of the symptoms of Blake’s condition, his mother has said, is that he likes to sit in the same spot each day in the Liberty Middle School cafeteria. Last Thursday, Kitchen said, Blake placed his books in his spot and went to get food. When he returned he found that his belongings had been moved and someone was sitting in his seat.
When Blake asked the student to move, another boy — who had allegedly been bullying Blake’s older brother — smashed Blake’s head into the lunchroom table, punched him in the face and body-slammed him to the floor, his mother said.
Blake suffered a fractured jaw, skull and damaged inner ear. He spent five days in the hospital.
The Liberty School District said in a written statement that the incident is being reviewed and that school leaders are cooperating with police.
Liberty police confirmed that they responded to an assault call at the school and arrested a boy who was taken to Clay County Juvenile Court. The boy’s name has not been released.
“This boy was savagely beaten,” said Sen. Kurt Schaefer, a Columbia Republican. “This was not pushing and shoving. This was a beating that put this boy in the hospital for five days.”
Schaefer is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, which drafts the state budget every year. He said Wednesday that he was open to discussing school funding cuts over incidents like the Liberty case, “because unfortunately that’s usually the only way to get people’s attention.”
That view was echoed by Sen. Ryan Silvey, a Kansas City Republican whose district includes Liberty.
“Oftentimes, whether it’s a state department or local schools, money seems to be the motivating factor above all,” Silvey said.
Sen. Dave Schatz, a Republican from Sullivan, cautioned his colleagues to wait to render a judgment until all the facts are in.
“If you’re going to stand up and make a statement,” he said, “you better have facts behind it.”
Schmitt, who has a son who is autistic, said he will once again be pushing a bill that would require school districts to develop procedures for reporting and preventing bullying, as well as investigating cases and responding. Schools also would need to post policies for dealing with bullying throughout their buildings and give annual notice to students, parents and staff members.
It also would create a formal definition of “cyberbullying” through the Internet and cellphones.
The legislation has failed to gain traction in recent years amid disagreement between Republican and Democratic lawmakers over whether schools should be allowed to include in anti-bullying policies categories of children protected from bullying based on things like sexual orientation, race or religion.
Leaving out the groups of protected individuals, critics say, would essentially mean a statewide ban on any local policies specifying protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students.
Schmitt said he would like to call administrators from Liberty Middle School to testify before the Joint Committee on Government Accountability.