KIHEI - While other students looked on with fear and did nothing, Eileen Parkman mustered up the courage to stop five 5th-grade boys from beating an autistic student who lay defenseless in a fetal position on a South Maui schoolyard last year.
"Everybody was scared," 9-year-old Eileen recalled last week. "I went up to the kids, and I asked them politely" to stop . . . "even though I was scared."
"It isn't the right thing to beat up people. It's the right thing to help people," Eileen said in explaining her bravery in coming to the defense of a helpless student during a lunch recess at Kamali'i Elementary School.
Nine-year-old Eileen Parkman beams as friend and Maui police officer Oscar Martin-Del Campo and Eileen’s father, Sean, stand next to her during her receipt of awards for her bravery from the Maui Autism Center in Kihei on Friday. In 2012, then-2nd-grader Eileen stood up to five 5th-grade boys who were beating up a 2nd-grade autistic boy.
The Maui News / CHRIS SUGIDONO photo
But she paid a price. The boys turned their attention on the then-2nd-grader, pushing her to the ground, swearing at her and stepping on her hands and arms - leaving shoe marks all over her body, according to Eileen's father, Sean.
Eileen kicked the boys to get away.
"Yes, I was very scared," Eileen said, adding it was "very painful" to get bullied.
"No, I don't think that is right. I don't think anybody should be beat up," Eileen said.
And, it wasn't an isolated incident. Her defiance of the older boys made her a target for bullying at least four more times at Kamali'i Elementary School, Sean Parkman said. Older kids kicked Eileen and threw balls at her face.
After being unable to get satisfactory attention to the problem of bullying from school officials, Parkman pulled his daughter from the school. Now she's being tutored privately.
Citing student privacy laws that don't allow official comment on such cases, Department of Education spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz declined last week to address the specific incident involving Eileen and 9-year-old Jimmy Mandeville, the autistic student who was beaten. She acknowledged that the department investigated.
"All students are subject to disciplinary actions as noted in Chapter 19," which refers to misconduct in public schools, she said in an email.
"The Department of Education takes bullying very seriously and believes it is important to support victims of bullying. We encourage students and parents to report incidents of bullying and harassment by immediately notifying school officials," she wrote. "The department is taking a comprehensive and systemic approach to address bullying and harassment in all of our public schools, including training staff about anti-bullying efforts."
Meanwhile, Eileen's heroics and courage have not gone unnoticed.
The Maui Autism Center presented Eileen with a bravery award on Friday afternoon, with center founder Howard Greenberg calling her a "hero."
"She defended this boy because of her courage," he said during the ceremony at the center in Kihei. "Eileen Parkman is a defender of the defenseless."
Prior to the ceremony, Greenberg said he was personally touched because he has a 9-year-old autistic son.
While Greenberg said the award aims to boost Eileen's self-esteem while she continues to cope with psychological and emotional issues stemming from the incident, the award spotlights the problem of schoolyard bullying of autistic students, as well as bullying in general that goes on in schools.
"We got to have more people to stand up for the nonverbal community, the autistic community," Greenberg said. "If we can shine light on this, we can maybe create some sort of awareness."
Sean Parkman said he's proud of his daughter.
"She deserves to be held as a hero," he said. But "what happened to her was pretty wrong. I felt bad. What she did was the right thing. She helped the kid that needed help. She got beat up," he said.
It took Sean Parkman a while to remove Eileen from enrollment at Kamali'i. After the first incident, he was told the situation would be remedied, he said. But when Eileen endured more retaliation, Parkman said he received no help from school officials.
He and his mother offered to help serve as school field monitors, but they were turned away, he said.
Parkman said school officials told him that if he pulled Eileen from the school, then officials would report him to Child Protective Services because he could be violating school attendance policies. So, he held off.
But after taking Eileen to doctors several times after getting beaten, doctors warned Parkman that Eileen was not safe. He then removed her from the school.
Greenberg called for "more kindness in the school system."
"Elementary school is supposed to be safe, especially for special needs kids. . . . They cannot defend themselves," he said.
Some special needs students cannot talk or physically express their feelings easily, Greenberg added.
Sixty percent of students with disabilities reported being bullied compared to 25 percent of the general student population, according to a 2008 citation from the British Journal of Learning Support, which was cited in the 2011 report, "Walk a Mile in Their Shoes, Bullying and the Child with Special Needs."
According to the book "Insights from across Fields and around the World" (2009), only 10 studies have been conducted in the U.S. on bullying and developmental disabilities.
All studies found that children with disabilities were two to three times more likely to be victims of bullying than their nondisabled peers.
During the award presentation, Greenberg said that, according to the National Education Association, 160,000 children every day don't go to school because they are afraid of being bullied.
Although reports paint an ugly picture of what special needs students face from fellow students in school, Greenberg said prior to the ceremony that the situation is likely worse than reports show. Many incidents go unreported because those being bullied can't speak or have a hard time communicating verbally.
"The kids can't speak for themselves," Greenberg said. "Sometimes the ones that are verbal don't speak to what actually happened. Their testimony isn't admissible in court."
Greenberg cited one case in which a New Jersey father had his autistic son wired with a microphone and found out that his son was being bullied.
"The core of the issue is, this population needs to be protected by the rest of us because they can't protect themselves," he said.
Jimmy's mother, Maria Mandeville, told The Maui News she is thankful for what Eileen has done to protect her autistic son and for the special needs community.
"I think she's amazing," Maria Mandeville said. "She's a wonderful girl."
All is not well, though. She said her son, now a 3rd-grader, still is being picked on at school.
Maria Mandeville and Jimmy were present to see Eileen receive a certificate from the center. It was given to her by friend and Maui police officer Oscar Martin-Del Campo. Greenberg presented her with a medal.
* Melissa Tanji can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.