With a gracious, loving smile, Eileen Parkman, 9, thanked everyone who attended her award ceremony at the Maui Autism Center in Kihei on Friday, March 8. She was honored by the Maui Police Department (MPD) for her bravery in standing up to bullies at school on behalf of a boy who was being mercilessly taunted and physically abused on the playground.
"Thank you, everyone, for being here," she said clearly and sweetly. "I really appreciate it. A lot."
The ceremony served to honor the brave girl, named by the center's founder, Howard Greenberg, as the "defender of the defenseless," but also to raise public awareness about bullying and the harm done specifically to those who are often voiceless--children with special needs.
Eileen Parkman (left) and one of her many friends pose for a photo at an award ceremony at the Maui Autism Center.
MPD Officer Martin Del Campo began the ceremony for "a great cause," presenting Eileen with a hug and a certificate for protecting someone who needed help and who couldn't help himself.
Greenberg started Maui Autism Center because of his autistic son's victimization by bullying students and uninformed teachers' low expectations and abusive treatment.
He shared some grim statistics on bullying in schools at the ceremony. This is a national problem, asserted Greenberg, and the statistics are not kind.
"In the U.S., one in seven students in K-12 is thought to be a bully or victim of bullying, and 282,000 children are physically attacked in secondary schools each month," said Greenberg. "And children with autism spectrum disorders are bullied far more often--as much as five times more frequently than their peers." (Read more at healthland.time.com/2012/09/05/why-autistic-kids-make-easy-targets-for-school-bullies.)
It's a scary situation, which makes Eileen's actions all the more significant. She "truly deserves to be honored," Greenberg insisted, as he gave her a medal of honor "for extreme bravery in the face of danger."
"This special little girl has more courage at 9 years old than the rest of us will have in our lives," Greenberg said.
He explained that Eileen, then in second grade, came upon five fifth grade boys during recess who were bullying Jimmy, a boy with autism. Instead of standing around like all the other kids, she stood her ground and announced, "Stop and leave that boy alone."
Her courage earned her the attention of the bullies, and she was shouted at with "bad words" and then "beat up badly," according to her father, Sean Parkman. She was bruised all over with deep imprints of waffle-like shoeprints on her legs, he said. And this wasn't the only time. These attacks and bullying continued for Eileen, and for Jimmy as well.
Parkman said he didn't feel the support of the school that first time or thereafter, feeling that the situation hadn't been handled properly and had even been covered up. He hadn't received a call from the school that day his daughter stood up and was bullied and abused, something the principal later called a "small incident at school today," claimed Parkman. Parkman has since removed Eileen from the school "for her safety."
"My daughter has suffered so much because of this," Parkman said at the ceremony, thanking everyone for their support. "Hopefully, we can stop it," he pleaded.
What can we do? Education, Parkman insisted--for children, teachers and principals. The teachers need to feel the support of the higher-ups in taking positive action, Parkman said.
"Many teachers don't know it's [autism] a neurological disorder--they treat them like they're noncompliant" and deliberately causing trouble, Greenberg told the Maui Weekly. "Ignorance is a big part of the problem."
But Greenberg and Parkman are determined to be heard and make a positive difference regarding bullying in schools.
"We're not going to sweep it under the cover," Parkman said. "We're going to nip it in the bud."
After The Maui News covered the story, there was "a huge response," Parkman said, "many people calling who wanted to write letters, to tell Eileen what a great job she did."
He would also like the help of Maui Weekly's readers--spreading the news, educating children and teachers, and insisting that schools take responsibility.
"Who could be more dedicated than parents?" Greenberg asked.
If you want to learn more or express your appreciation, write to Sean or Eileen Parkman at P.O. Box 121, Kula, HI 96790, or contact the Maui Autism Center, which is run by parents with children on the autistic spectrum. Call (808) 879-4111 and visit autismmaui.com
The center is located at 411 Huku Li'i Place, Suite 104, in Kihei.