When the first snow of the season fell Monday in Baker City, some took the time to enjoy it.
Others complained as the harsh reality of winter set in even though it came a bit later than in some years past.
And still others used it as an opportunity to bully a schoolmate and cause hurt and unhappiness.
Snowball fights can be fun if they are fought on equal ground. But four against one has little chance of ending happily for the one.
Madison Sullivan found herself in that situation on her way home from South Baker Intermediate School Monday afternoon.
Madison turned 12 on Nov. 14. She was diagnosed with autism when she was 21 months old.
Because she has autism, she wasn’t quite sure what was happening to her when four students from school ganged up on her to repeatedly throw snowballs at her face from close range while she stood at the front gate of her home Monday afternoon.
But her parents, John and Angie Sullivan, who weren’t home at the time, saw what they say is a clear case of bullying, or even harassment or assault, based on the surveillance cameras at their home that recorded two separate videos of just a little more than a minute each of the rock throwing and snowball pelting their daughter endured.
The attackers were four boys, ranging in age from 9 to 11, the Sullivans said.
The bullying actually started on Nov. 20, they said, when their daughter was heckled on the playground by the boys who called her names and made derogatory comments about her. Madison returned to school on Thursday, but was upset by the treatment she’d received on the previous day and so her parents brought her home from school early.
When Madison returned to school this Monday, she was attacked after school just as she arrived at the gate to her family home.
“No kid should be victimized at their own house after school,” John Sullivan said. “Where is she supposed to feel safe at?”
The incident began with the boys throwing rocks at her from across the street. As they approached they began making snowballs to throw at her. One video shows the four boys standing face-to-face with Madison as they took turns throwing snowballs directly at her face and head.
The Sullivans credit a fifth boy in the group with seeking help for their daughter. They don’t know who scared the group away, but it’s apparent from the video that they were told to stop their attack on Madison and quickly ran from the scene together.
The boys have been identified through posting of the video clip on Facebook.
South Baker administrators have taken action, but because of the boys ages and confidentiality requirements, they will not say what that action has been.
The Sullivans said Tuesday that they were told by a parent of one of the boys that the four were suspended from school for three days.
Superintendent Mark Witty said Tuesday that school administrators followed policies and procedures put in place to handle such situations.
“From my view it was managed appropriately,” Witty said.
He noted that while the school cannot supervise students once they leave school property, administrators do have the authority to apply school rules when student behaviors, including those on social media, affect the ability of others to receive a free and appropriate public education.
The Sullivans are disappointed with the three-day suspension. They don’t believe that it is appropriate for what happened to their daughter or that it provides any guarantees that the boys will be monitored to prevent it from happening again.
“I’m just outraged,” Angie said. “I don’t know what to do.
“Her sisters found her sitting and crying on the porch in the cold all by herself.”
Madison’s father usually is at the house when she comes home from school at 3:30, but on Monday he was working late.
Fortunately, her two older sisters, Tiffany and Brooklyn Niehaus, ages 16 and 15 respectively, stopped by the house outside of their usual routine that day.
In their first visit with police, the Sullivans were told that because Madison was not seriously hurt and because of the boys’ young ages, no criminal action could be taken against them.
After meeting with the parents and learning more about the incident, Chief Ray Duman said Tuesday that there would be an investigation and that any evidence and information gathered would be turned over to the Baker County Juvenile Department for further consideration on whether to take the matter before the court.
Because the boys all are younger than 12, under Oregon law they have no “culpable mental state” to commit a crime, Duman said.
Their parents could be held accountable to pay for any damages, such as medical bills if Madison had required a doctor’s care, he said.
The court also could impose a curfew on the boys or order other requirements as deemed appropriate.
“This thing needs to get investigated and we’re going to do the right thing and we’re going to investigate,” Duman said.
“This should never happen,” he said. “I hope this is a community learning event.”
Witty said the schools will continue to work on improving school climate and offering strategies aimed at helping prevent bullying among students.
“All of us want to treat each other with kindness and respect,” he said. “Those are critical traits for school and for the workplace.”
He noted that the District serves 1,750 students.
“The vast majority every single day treat each other and our staff with great respect,” he said.
Duman said Detective Shannon Regan will continue looking into the matter involving Madison and the boys.
Duman said the police will have no control over how the case moves forward once the investigation is complete.
“A lot of these things are learn as we go,” Duman said, regarding the decision of whether or not to pursue investigation of the incident. “If we’ve made mistakes we’re going to correct them.”
Child safety is something everyone in the community should take responsibility for, he said.
Duman said he is proud of his Baker City Police Department employees who respond to 1,000 calls a month with just two officers per shift.
“We’re doing the best we can,” he said. “I’d put these guys up against anybody I’ve ever worked with.
“They are doing a good job for this community,” he said.