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.

 

My story: The Benefits of Working with Agencies like the Washington State Department of Services for the Blind

Getting a job right after I graduated was a very exciting and scary experience. Luckily, I had Washington State Department of Services for the Blind (DSB) staff to help me along the way because without their help, experiencing new things would have been difficult. At first, I was nervous. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after high school. Luckily DSB staff stepped in and helped me figure out some things. I am getting job experiences with different companies like the Museum of Flight and at PAVE, a nonprofit that assists young adults like me. PAVE also assists parents, families and anyone connected to a child, youth or young adult with disabilities.

Reasonable accommodations were part of this experience. Some of the new experiences that worked for me were asking for accommodations such as getting a larger keyboard so it would be easier to see and type. Another accommodation I had was using an iPad to use the speech to text feature. This helps me get my thoughts in order instead of typing them out.

DSB also helped me get situated to find the right resources such as how to use shuttle services. It took a while to fill out all the paperwork but in the end, it was very simple to figure out and the wait was worth it.

They have helped me find job experiences which have helped me get to the job and do the work, stay busy and get ready for the real world.

I encourage you to try to get the help from agencies like the DSB or any other agency that will help you get a job. They will guide you all along the way!

Attention Teens: You Can Lead Your IEP Meeting

If you are a student with an Individualized Education Program (IEP), you are in charge—even if no one ever told you that!

This individualized program and all that paperwork are about you: your goals, skills, interests….  As members of your IEP team, the school and your parents are offering to help you be your most awesome self, but you are the expert about your own life. Leading your own IEP meeting might be a great way to start taking charge of your education and your future.

If you’re getting close to your 16th birthday, you’ll want to pay extra attention to this idea because a Transition Plan gets added to your IEP in the school year when you turn 16. You may have started planning when you were middle school, when a teacher or counselor probably started helping you work on a High School and Beyond Plan. This plan is required for all students to graduate in Washington State. Now is a good time to take another look and think a little more carefully about what you want to do in the future. Here are some starter questions:

  • Where will you work?
  • Do you see yourself in college or in a vocational program?
  • Are you going to drive or cook or take a bus to the grocery store?

Setting goals and making some preliminary plans now will help your school and family help you make sure you’ve got the right class credits, skills training and support to make that shift out of high school easier.

Being a leader at your IEP meeting is a great way to build skills for self-advocacy and self-determination. That means you can speak up for yourself and help others help you. At your IEP meeting, you can practice describing what helps you or what makes your life harder. You get to talk about what you do well and any projects or ideas that you get excited about. In short, you get to design your education so that it supports your plans to design your own adult life.

You can also invite other people to your IEP meetings. Maybe you have an aunt or a brother who knows you well and might have some great ideas? You can invite anyone to help you create a better IEP.  Remember the first letter in IEP stands for “Individual.” That’s you, so speak up!

Here are links to more ideas and tools to help you get involved in your own future planning:

The Center for Change in Transition Services has a toolkit just for you

Here are some other great Student Resources

Tips to Make a Well-Informed Transition into Life After High School

Tips to Make a Well-Informed Transition into Life After High School

A Brief Overview

  • Students with an Individualized Education Program (IEP) need to have a Transition Plan written into the IEP by the school year when they turn 16, but it’s never too soon to start talking, planning and envisioning the future.
  • Students can stay in school until they are 21—an option for youth who need more time to learn and prepare for adulthood. The IEP team determines a projected graduation date and writes this date into the IEP document.
  • Transition Services in the IEP can support a High School and Beyond Plan, Washington State’s toolkit that is a state requirement for all students to get ready for next steps.
  • In Washington, a student takes charge of educational programming at 18 unless other arrangements are designed. Read on for more details.
  • See our companion articles about Student-Led IEP meetings and a new option for pre-employment support through the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS).

Full Article

Senior year is loaded with projects, planning and a big push to finish requirements and figure out what happens next. For students with special needs, there can be a few extra steps, and it’s never too soon to start thinking and planning for this important transition.

Here are some practical tips and a range of resources to help youth and families make well-informed decisions.

The Individualized Education Program (IEP) must include a Transition Plan with individualized Transition Services by the school year in which a student turns 16. Best practice is to start planning for this in seventh or eighth grade, as outlined in the state-required High School and Beyond Plan. If you are starting later than that, don’t worry! Get started now, and your efforts will certainly reap benefits into the future.

When a Transition Plan is added to an IEP, consider that this life-after-high-school planning now focuses the IEP on post-secondary goals and outcomes. Helping the student engage with the IEP team in conversation around these three questions can help direct planning and school supports that will help the student reach the written Transition Plan Goals:  

  1. Where am I now? (strengths, interests, capacities—the Present Levels of Performance in the IEP)
  2. Where do I want to go? (aspirations, dreams, expectations—Transition Plan Goals in the IEP)
  3. How do I get there? (transition services, courses, activities, supports, service linkages, community connections, help to overcome barriers—Annual Goals, Accommodations and other provisions included in the IEP)

The graduation standards for a student eligible for special education are the same as for all other students. In our state, a district’s flexibility in determining how a student fulfills those requirements comes from the Washington Administrative Code (WAC Section 180-51-115). Each school district will have its own policy for implementing these state rules, and you can request a copy of your district’s policy. If there is any confusion, you can encourage the school to consult the district special education office for guidance.

In short, the student’s IEP team determines how the student will meet graduation requirements and how long she/he will stay in school.

A student doesn’t have to graduate at the end of a traditional senior year. A student remains eligible for special education until graduation requirements are met and the student has earned a high school diploma (WAC Section 392-172A-02000). However, a school does not have to hold back credits for a student to remain eligible. The student’s IEP team determines the student’s graduation plan, including the planned graduation date. The student could potentially meet all graduation requirements, but if the IEP team has determined that the student needs further schooling to receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), then the student has a right to stay in school to age 21.

In the meantime, a student can participate in commencement ceremonies at the end of a traditional senior year, with peers, under a Washington provision called Kevin’s Law. Students and families should communicate with a special education teacher, case manager or school counselor to ensure that all information about graduation and senior year events is clearly understood and shared. Plan early for needed accommodations at senior year events.

When assessing the Transition Plan in the IEP you can ask these questions:

  • Is the plan age appropriate?
  • Is information provided by more than one source?
  • Do the post-secondary goals consider all areas of life after high school, including employment, further education, independent living and community engagement?
  • Are the goals SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timely?
  • Is a target graduation date included in the IEP?

In Washington State, the Office of Superintendent for Public Instruction (OSPI) has provided a guidance document for all students called the High School and Beyond Plan. You can access that plan and the state’s graduation requirements on OSPI’s Website.

For Special Education students, the plan is not replaced but can be further supported by the plan that includes Transition Services in the IEP. Each school district determines the precise guidelines for students to meet the requirements of the High School and Beyond Plan, and some schools use tools with different names. Becoming familiar with the state-recommended format and then comparing this tool to your school’s requirements and the student’s specific IEP programming is a good way to participate in making sure your student has a robust plan.

A student takes charge of educational planning and programming at the Age of Majority, which is 18 in Washington. According to the Washington Administrative Code (WAC Section 392-172A-03090), “Beginning not later than one year before the student reaches the age of 18, the IEP must include a statement that the student has been informed of the student’s rights under the act, if any, that will transfer to the student on reaching the age of majority.”

Parents have a few options if they wish to continue to have rights to participate in their child’s education:

  1. Guardianship (org)
  2. Power of Attorney (Washington State Legislature)
  3. The student can choose to include “other individuals who have knowledge or special expertise regarding the student” on the IEP team (WAC Section 392-172A-03095).
  4. Another option is supported decision-making. Informing Families has a helpful tool for designing this voluntary, informal plan.

Families will want to clarify what specific roles and powers parents will retain under the arrangement designed by your family and the school. The special services office at your school may be able to help with this; without legal guardianship or Power of Attorney your student will need to sign consent for you to attend meetings and participate in decision-making.

Regardless of the arrangement, families will want to have some conversations to help a student envision a future and start to see how to get there. A variety of tools are available, including these:

For youth who struggle with behavioral health challenges, transitions can trigger some additional challenges. These resources may provide some helpful tips:

Another resource that might help with planning is the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation (DVR). Each school is assigned a DVR counselor to assist with pre-employment training. You can look up the name and phone number for your school’s DVR counselor online through a link provided by the Department of Health and Human Services. A new option for youth and families to receive pre-employment counseling is from a program called Foundational Community Supports. Check out PAVE’s companion article about this program.

Good luck with your planning! If you need more specific support unique to your situation, get help from one of our Parent Training and Information (PTI) resource coordinators by filling out a Help Request Form or by calling 1-800-572-7368.

Open Doors for Multicultural Families provides a Transition Resource Guide available in 10 languages