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District, Culprit Address Cyberbullying Of Student With Special Needs

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- The mother of a Twin Cities boy with autism was horrified to learn her son was the victim of cyberbullying.

A student snapped a picture of Tristan last week while he used the restroom at Minnetonka High School.

The image was shared over and over again on social media.

Tristan's mom, Cassidy, hopes this starts a conversation about acceptance.

Minnetonka High Cyberbullying
Tristan & Cassidy (credit: CBS)

"By far the happiest kid, always laughing, such a joy," Cassidy said.

Tristan was born with a rare disorder that left him legally blind. He also has autism.

The 15-year-old is in the Special Education program at Minnetonka High.

"When Tristan goes off to school, it's that vulnerability, but I feel like I'm putting him in safe hands," Cassidy said.

She learned a student snapped a full-body picture of the front of her son while he was using the urinal at school, then shared it on social media with a derogatory message.

"It went viral, it was then reposted, and it was devastating," Cassidy said.

She doesn't understand why a student would take advantage of her son's vulnerabilities.

Minnetonka High School
(credit: CBS)

"It's heartbreaking to see my sweet son," Cassidy said. "That's the scariest part as a mom is not being able to protect your children, and then to know something happened to my son and I couldn't protect him, is really hard."

Julie Hertzog, director of Pacer's National Bullying Prevention Center, says kids with disabilities are bullied at three-times the rate of their peers

Pacer is an organization that strives to enhance the lives of people with disabilities. Hertzog says it is crucial for students to have the courage to speak up.

"Over 60 percent of bullying situations will stop when … a peer intervenes, again, that's incredibly powerful because peers know about situations long before adults do," Hertzog said.

In this case, students stood up for Tristan. They told the student who posted the picture to take it down, and reported the behavior.

"We did talk to one of the students. We told him, 'In our book, you're a hero,'" Cassidy said. "'If it wasn't for you, we don't know when this would have been taken down.'"

Cassidy wants students to realize bullying hurts, and the effects can be long-lasting.

"I want there to be awareness. I want people to have the conversation," Cassidy said. "What I would like to see is more awareness in our schools."

WCCO has learned the student involved was disciplined. Minnetonka Public Schools released this statement, along with an apology from the student.

"Last week at Minnetonka High School, a student violated another's privacy by taking a photograph of a special education student in the restroom and posting it on social media. This was a terrible act, and one that is not tolerated in our schools.

The incident was reported to school administrators who responded immediately and conducted a full investigation. While data privacy laws prohibit the District from releasing specific student discipline records, we can say that the school has a strong code of conduct, discipline policies and a policy that prohibits this specific behavior. Our discipline policy was followed in this incident. The school administration has taken the incident very seriously.

This is an important teachable moment for our entire community. In our society today, social media is too often used to shame, harm or make fun of others. We remain steadfast in our efforts to teach all students to respect the dignity of each individual and promote civility and responsibility in person and online."

The student who posted the photos shared this statement:

"Every person should be treated with respect and dignity. I regret what happened to this individual, and I hope to learn from this experience. I sincerely apologize for any negative consequences that this individual and his family may have experienced. It was a thoughtless action on my part. My hope is that other people will learn from my mistake, as I have. In the future, I hope to learn how to treat others with more compassion and kindness."

Pacer's National Bullying Prevention Center offers information and resources. Click here for more information.

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