Bullying at School: Resources and the Rights of Students with Special Needs

Students with disabilities are bullied at a higher rate than their typical peers. October is National Bullying Prevention Month, providing a good opportunity to review information about available resources and actions families can take.

According to Disability Scoop magazine, about half of individuals with autism, intellectual disabilities, speech impairments and learning disabilities are bullied at school. The rate of bullying for typical students is about 10 percent.

A student who is identified as having a disability has added layers of protection against bullying. Those protections are upheld by the United States Office for Civil Rights (OCR), which in 2014 issued a Dear Colleague Letter to remind school staff of their obligations to protect students with disabilities against bullying:

“While there is broad consensus that bullying is wrong and cannot be tolerated in our schools, the sad reality is that bullying persists in our schools today, and especially so for students with disabilities,” the letter states. “This troubling trend highlights the importance of OCR’s continuing efforts to protect the rights of students with disabilities through the vigorous enforcement of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Section 504) and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (Title II). It also underscores the need for schools to fully understand their legal obligations to address and prevent disability discrimination in our schools.”

Students on Section 504 Plans and Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) qualify for the protections of a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Special services, accommodations and programming designed to meet specific, unique needs are what make education “appropriate” for a student with an identified disability. According to OCR, a school’s failure to address bullying can be determined as a denial of FAPE, “when a school knows or should know of bullying conduct based on a student’s disability.”

The OCR goes on to say that a school “must take immediate and appropriate action to investigate or otherwise determine what occurred. If a school’s investigation reveals that bullying based on disability created a hostile environment…the school must take prompt and effective steps reasonably calculated to end the bullying, eliminate the hostile environment, prevent it from recurring, and, as appropriate, remedy its effects.”

The U.S. Department of Education maintains an online blog called Homeroom. An article, Keeping Students with Disabilities Safe from Bullying, states that students will disabilities are particularly vulnerable because of physical issues, challenges with social skills and intolerant environments. “Students who are targets of bullying are more likely to experience lower academic achievement, higher truancy rates, feelings of alienation, poor peer relationships, loneliness, and depression,” the article states. “We must do everything we can to ensure that our schools are safe and positive learning environments—where all students can learn.”

Washington State defines harassment, intimidation, or bullying (RCW 28A.300.285) as “any intentional electronic, written, verbal, or physical act…” that:

  1. Physically harms a student or damages the student’s property
  2. Has the effect of substantially disrupting a student’s education
  3. Is so severe, persistent, or pervasive that it creates an intimidating or threatening educational environment
  4. Has the effect of substantially disrupting the orderly operation of the school

Every school district in the state has a staff member responsible for managing complaints related to Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying (HIB), and the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides a resource list to help you locate the compliance coordinator with jurisdiction over your school. OSPI also provides a HIB Toolkit as part of its Safety Center. Among resources provided through the toolkit is a link to a national agency,  StopBullying.gov, which includes lists of suggestions for parents and what-to-do for teenagers.

Washington State’s Office of the Educational Ombudsman (OEO) provides guidance and model Incident Reporting Forms for parents and schools through its website, which includes some articles in both English and Spanish. “Bullying is not something schools and families should take lightly,” OEO states. “Bullying is a repeated negative behavior that takes advantage of a less-powerful person, and sometimes even makes the child who is bullied feel at fault. Hitting, name calling, shunning and shaming are all forms of bullying. So are spreading rumors, gossiping and making threats online.”

The PACER Center’s National Bullying Prevention Center, founded in 2006, has a vast array of resources for families and professionals. Here is a sampling of information from PACER’s Top 10 facts for parents, educators and students with disabilities:

  1. Students with disabilities are more likely to be bullied than nondisabled peers.
  2. Bullying affects a student’s ability to learn. For more information read PACER’s Common Views About Bullying. Bullying can lead to:
    1. school avoidance and higher rates of absenteeism
    2. decrease in grades
    3. inability to concentrate
    4. loss of interest in academic achievement
    5. increase in dropout rates
  3. Bullying based on a student’s disability may be considered harassment if it includes:
    1. unwelcome conduct such as verbal abuse, name calling, epithets, or slurs
    2. graphic or written statements
    3. threats
    4. physical assault
    5. other conduct that may be physically threatening, harmful, or humiliating
  4. Bullying could be determined to be disability-based harassment and/or a denial of Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), protected by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR).
  5. All states have bullying prevention laws, and many school districts also have individual policies that address how to respond to bullying situations. Families can contact a local district to request a written copy of the district policy on bullying.
  6. Adult response is important. Parents, educators, and other adults are important advocates and need to know the best way to talk with children who might be reluctant to talk about what happened, perhaps because the bully threatened to retaliate if called out. PACER has letter templates parents can use to communicate with the school and also articles about how to talk with children about bullying and cyberbullying.
  7. The Individualized Education Program (IEP) can be adapted to help when bullying becomes a barrier to learning. The PACER center provides these IEP-specific tips:
    1. Identify an adult in the school that the child can trust for help.
    2. Determine how school staff will document and report incidents.
    3. Allow the child to leave class early to avoid hallway incidents.
    4. Hold separate in-services for school staff and classroom peers to help them understand a child’s disability.
    5. Educate peers about school district policies on bullying behavior.
    6. Ensure that school staff regularly remind the student that he or she has a “right to be safe” and that the bullying is not his or her fault.
    7. Request that school staff shadow the student who has been bullied in hallways, classrooms, and playgrounds.
  8. More than 50 percent of bullying situations stop when a peer intervenes. Most students don’t like bullying, but they may not know what to do when it happens. Peer advocacy is a unique approach that empowers students to protect those targeted by bullying.
  9. Self-advocacy can be fostered as a skill that helps the student with a disability talk about needs in a straightforward way. By being involved in what happens in response to the bullying, a student gains a sense of control over their situation. PACER Center’s Student Action Plan helps students define the situation, think about what could be different and write steps for action.
  10. Everyone has a role to play to help students see that no one deserves to be bullied and that all people should be treated with dignity and respect, no matter what. PACER center provides curricula under a program called, The We Will Generation.

Additional information and resources about bullying are available through the Center for Parent Information and Resources, CPIR, which maintains a website called the Parent Center Hub.

A child’s mental well-being may be impacted when bullying, teasing and intimidation become a pattern. If a student or family member needs someone to talk to in an emergent moment of crisis, these phone numbers may be helpful:

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 800-273-8255

General Teen Talkline: 800-TLC-TEEN

Trevor Project (issues related to sexuality): 866-488-7386

These and other hotlines and text lines are available through Suicide Hotlines.com.