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.


A Mother Shares her Personal Journey of Welcoming a Baby with Down Syndrome

By Elizabeth Paschich

The news that my son had Down syndrome came at a bad time.  I was pregnant with our 6th child, and my husband and I were not on the same page about my pregnancy. Age 37, I qualified for extensive genetic testing that could identify the gender of my child at 11 weeks. I wanted to know—and to start planning for our new family member. I didn’t know the results would begin a different kind of preparation.

I got the news while visiting my younger sister in the hospital after she gave birth to her first baby, a girl. My doctor asked if it was a good time to call, and of course I said yes. He then told me that the test showed that my child had Down syndrome. He said he would refer me to Maternal Fetal Medicine for an ultrasound. He told me to store his number and to call any time with questions. Then he asked if I wanted to know my child’s gender and I said, “Oh, yes, yes I do.” He told me I was having a boy. I felt a tug in my chest; this was my first boy. I thanked him for his call and hung up.

There I was, in my sister’s hospital room, trying to figure out what to feel when I realized everyone was waiting for the news. I shook off any emotions and told them, “They think my baby has Down syndrome… but it’s a Boy!” No one knew what to say. I sat for a minute, my eyes fixed on that sweet baby girl. My other children were with me, and the youngest ones were so excited to know they were getting a baby brother. My oldest daughter asked a few questions and sat quietly with me on the ride home.

I felt completely alone. I didn’t call my husband because I felt like he wouldn’t say anything I needed to hear. I just wanted someone to tell me that everything was going to be okay. That night I shared the news with him, and this began an intense roller coaster of silence and arguing that lasted three days. I finally had the courage to tell my husband that he had a decision to make: Would he stay and support our family, or would he go? He opted to stay, but he coped with the news by staying in denial about the diagnosis of Down syndrome.

We went to our first ultrasound at Maternal Fetal Medicine, where they showed us the missing nasal bone and took some other measurements. They sent the results to my doctor, who reported that the baby also had a cyst on his brain that was considered normal and should fade in time. He gently told me that it wasn’t too late for other options. I briefly shared my husband’s desire to terminate the pregnancy because we already had so many children but that I just couldn’t. He asked me to give his number to my husband and to tell him to call if he had any questions or just needed to talk.

Each ultrasound provided new findings. As the months ticked by, we learned that our son had a pericardial effusion and some sort of calcification in his intestine. The 29-week ultrasound showed that the cyst was still there and identified a moderate dilation in his right ventricle and a moderate pericardial effusion. The 34-week ultrasound showed the same but with an increase in dilation and effusion; now they were talking potential Hydrops. I went for a fetal echocardiogram, which confirmed the ultrasound’s findings. My heart was heavy from worry, but I was beginning to accept that I was not in control.  I opted out of the fetal MRI. Everything I read made these results even scarier. I had my last ultrasound at 38 weeks and learned that the cyst and effusion were still there but that the dilation had returned to normal. 

Two days later I went into labor, which went quickly. My purple little guy was placed on my tummy, and he let out a cry. I was so thankful to hear him cry. Once they got him to turn pink it was time to try nursing and with a bit of effort he latched on. I started to cry because this meant I would know when he needed me, and I could feed him. He had an echocardiogram before we went home.  The cardiologist felt confident that the few little holes identified in his heart valves would be stable enough to wait for re-examination at his one-month visit.

During that first month my son cried at appropriate times and, while it was challenging, he was nursing. At one month, the cardiologist told me that he didn’t need to see my son anymore. The holes were closing as expected, and the effusion was close to gone. In time his little blue feet regained their color and soon it was all just a memory. His development was a little bit slower than typical, but my son smiled, giggled, rolled over, crawled, stood up… and we celebrated. His sisters encouraged him, and we found joy in everything from his first giggle to his bowel movements. I never forgot what could have been, so we kept pressing on and encouraging him to be great.

While each ultrasound brought more anxiety about my child’s future, I used those moments to learn how to become what he would need me to be. I accepted that I was not in control of what was happening but that I could control how I thought about the experiences.

When Lincoln came into our lives, we had no idea that it would change our view of the world. We have a chance to teach and learn in every challenge we face. My family is learning sign language as a team. We are spending more time appreciating each other’s strengths, and we are teaching others along the way. When children ask questions about Lincoln, I have an opportunity to speak from love about my little guy before they have a chance to hear any other way. My son has the most contagious smile, and he continues to impress his therapists. 

My son will be two this spring and he is standing on his own, walking with a walker, using multiple signs, and practicing with his voice constantly. He still ranks in the lower 25th percentile, compared with typically developing children, and we work with him daily to encourage his progress.

Has it been easy? Absolutely not! It has taken many therapy sessions and forced us out of our comfort zones. We have cried for him, and we have fears about his future. Being Lincoln’s mom has made me question everything about myself, but I wouldn’t change a thing. He is beautiful, loving, snuggly, smart, aware…. Above all else, he is my little boy.

In hindsight I am thankful for the way that every piece of our puzzle fell into place. This journey has pushed us to our limits and shown us that we can be okay. It gave us the opportunity to learn our boundaries, figure out what is worth fighting for, and that we are a team. I now advise others to open their minds and prepare for a new perspective on life. Your sadness is not wrong: It is real, and it will pass once you realize how much you have to celebrate.

Finding the Right Child Care Provider for Your Child

by Marcia Jacobs, Communications and Marketing Manager, Child Care Aware of Washington

Selecting a child care provider is one of a parent’s most important decisions. Your child may spend many hours with the provider you choose, and you want that playing and learning time to be well-spent.  

All parents look for a provider who can offer basic health, safety and quality, but parents of children with special needs have additional considerations. The provider needs to be comfortable caring for the child in a unique set of circumstances and may need specialized training and materials. The child needs quality care but also a provider who can make the days fun!

How do you start your search?

Child Care Aware of Washington (CCA of WA) is a nonprofit organization that has been helping families find quality, licensed child care for almost 30 years. The referral services are free to families, and licensed providers are included in the database for free. Because providers don’t pay to advertise, the service is fair and not biased. Families can search online or contact a representative at the Family Center for help.

Families of children with special needs can call the CCA of WA Family Center, (1-800-446-1114) to find a child-care provider. The representatives at the Family Center will listen to what your child needs and then look through the database of Washington’s licensed child care providers based upon the following:

  • Behavior Supervision/Supports
  • Communication Supports
  • Diapering/Toileting Assistance
  • Eating Assistance
  • Health Monitoring
  • Mobility Assistance
  • Medication Monitoring
  • Nursing Care
  • Physical Therapy
  • Respiratory Supports
  • Sensory Integration
  • Specialized Equipment
  • Vision Supports

Representatives from the Family Center also may be able to help families find financial help, if they qualify.

Child care providers may also be eligible for an increased subsidy for accepting eligible children with special needs.

Finding a licensed child care provider who meets your child’s unique needs may mean you have to look further than a few miles from where you live or work. Not all child care providers are prepared to care for all children. CCA of WA hopes to help you find the best fit for your family.



Placement: Deciding Where a Student Spends the School Day

Where and when a student goes to school is called the placement. The Individualized Education Program (IEP) describes how much time a student spends in different settings. It also includes a statement about how much time the student spends with non-disabled students.

The IEP Team, including the parent, makes decisions about placement after talking about the student’s needs and goals from the IEP. The placement decision happens after the team has looked at the strengths, needs and goals for the student.

The IEP team chooses a placement that team members believe will meet the needs and goals for the student.

The IEP document usually includes a table or chart, called the “Service Matrix.” This shows where a student spends different parts of the day, who is providing the teaching or service, and the timing. The district includes parents in any decisions about placement. 

Placement discussions can get tricky.  Schools and families sometimes think outside the box to come up with the best fit. Placement options might include:

  • general education classes
  • general classes with support services and/or modifications
  • self-contained special education classes
  • a private school with a program or teaching style that meets a specific need
  • education provided at home
  • online school
  • residential care
  • a treatment facility
  • any combination of the above

School districts are required to provide a placement to meet the needs of a student with an IEP. Districts are not required to offer every program or service in every school building. For example, a district might have a self-contained preschool classroom in one but not every elementary-school building. A student who needs that setting to succeed might get bused to a different neighborhood school.

Placement decisions have requirements. Federal laws that govern special education are included in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). A major principle of the IDEA is that students with disabilities are educated with non-disabled students “to the maximum extent appropriate.”  This principle is called the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). ​

To meet the LRE requirement, schools need to explain in writing why a more restrictive setting is required to meet the needs of the student.  

Parents have a lot to contribute about the strengths and needs of their student. This is important information for any placement decision.

In Washington State, all public schools are overseen by the Office of Superintendent for Public Instruction. OSPI requires that schools and IEP teams consider the following when making placement decisions:

  1. The content of the student’s IEP
  2. The Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)
  3. The likelihood that the placement will provide a reasonably high probability of helping the student attain annual goals
  4. The consideration of any potential harmful effects that the placement option might have on the student or the quality of services needed.

Parents review the placement decision as part of the IEP team to make sure all four factors are considered. This can include a review of the accommodations, services, supports and specialized instruction needs so the student can succeed in multiple settings.  

A conversation about placement can happen anytime a parent or school staff member has a question about whether the placement is working. ​Sometimes families disagree with the student’s placement. Sometimes families believe that the school is not following the placement outlined by the IEP. A parent can always call an IEP meeting to discuss concerns. Teams work together to address concerns raised by any member of the team, which includes the parent.

The IDEA provides parents with ways to formally dispute any action by the school. ​These are called dispute resolution options. ​There are also alternative dispute resolution options available. OSPI provides detail about these options on its website. ​ PAVE can help you understand different options.  

Here are some websites to visit for more information about placement:   

OSPI: www.k12.wa.us

Center for Parent Information and Resources: Parent Center Hub article on Placement and LRE


Explore Adaptive Play with Your Child

Adaptive Play provides fun and engaging ways for children to learn new skills from occupational or physical therapists. Teachers in developmental preschools and kindergartens also make Adaptive Play part of their days. You can too!

Simply put, Adaptive Play is games and toys that work for children with unique physical or mental capacities. Special ways to play pretend, build with blocks, make up games or explore sensory experiences can engage and support children with developmental delays, physical challenges, sight or hearing challenges, or significant emotional/behavioral challenges. In hospitals, children in recovery might be able to “step outside” that bed or room for a while to have some playful fun.

Don’t let the fancy name intimidate you: Adaptive Play doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. This article provides a few ideas and website links to help you get started. As the person who knows your child best, you may find that you are already creating Adaptive Play opportunities for your child!

By trying the ideas at home, you may also learn some tools and tricks that can be useful at daycare or school. For example, you may find out that certain sensory toys are great distractors, that playdough uplifts a mood or that a tub of play sand stimulates thinking and helps a child become centered. 

Adaptive Playtime might include:

  • Modified toys, such as Duplo’s instead of Legos
  • BIG crayons, pencils, paper…
  • Water playtime with bubbles
  • A tub of sand, kidney beans, flax seeds with a variety of scoopers or measuring cups

Digging into a sensory tub full of something to scoop and pour can help if your child struggles with large and small muscle or motor movement. Picking things up, holding things steady, touching and smelling the objects also helps with sensory development.  

Homemade playdough is another great way to turn “work” into play. Playdough develops muscle movement, touch, sight and smell and inspires the imagination. The Imagination Tree has a recipe for a non-toxic playdough. Your child can help you make it and can choose the colors and the smells!

A Speech-Language Pathologist who specializes in assistive technologies, Lynn Shugars, has published a list of Adaptive Play and Leisure activities online.  Here are her “rules:”

  • It should be FUN! Don’t turn it into work or it won’t be enjoyable.
  • It should be MOTIVATING to the student. (This is often different from what teachers and parents think the student might enjoy).
  • Expose a student to many toys and activities to determine what they like.
  • Change activities often, but repeating activities is beneficial and highly recommended. This fosters memory skills and allows students to anticipate activities.
  • Choose manipulative toys and activities.

There are many websites, Facebook groups and Pinterest pages dedicated to creating great play and learning spaces for children with challenges. Pathyways.org, offers articles and videos about the importance of playtime. Another resource is a website called Growing Hands-on Kids.

Don’t limit yourself to what you read online! Creating toys and activities from everyday items allows children to see those everyday things as fun and usable and stimulates imagination in play. Getting creative with your child will create a model for how to work with objects in the world to keep things interesting and inventive. Engaging your child in the process of creating adaptive toys and activities might even make it easier to take a trip—you’ll find that all kinds of things that are readily available and inexpensive can become the perfect toy!

Go play, and have fun with your awesome kids!