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School Bullying Attorney in Philadelphia
  Edited on April 30, 2019

Students with Disabilities are at Higher Risk of Being Bullied

An 18-year-old with a mental disability was attacked by his former classmates in late 2016. The assault called attention to the outsized risk of students with disabilities being bullied in school. According to a School Psychology Quarterly study, special needs students are bullied 1.5 times more than students not receiving special education services.

As a parent you may be wondering how to identify bullying in your child’s school, how to help a child experiencing bullying, or even what to do when your child’s school or district isn’t helping. We’ll explore all of these topics here.

What is the definition of bullying in school? What does it look like?

According to a School Psychology Quarterly study in 2012, bullying is defined as repeated exposure to aggressive acts over time. These acts are intended to cause physical harm, mental distress, or shame. (This seems like a pretty clear definition but as we discuss below, there aren’t clear rules about when to take action with your child’s school IEP team or section 504 team).

It’s tempting to think ‘we know bullying when we see it’, but bullying can be quite subtle and difficult to spot. Over time, however, the effect on a special needs student can be anything but subtle.

Bullying in school can take one of four forms, some of them occurring at the same time, according to the National Center Against Bullying:

  1. Physical Bullying can look like hitting, kicking or pushing but also doing any of these things to a child’s possessions. For example, punching a child’s locker, taking away an orthopedic device, or ripping up homework are physical acts of violence and would fall under the category of physical bullying.

  2. Social Bullying is sometimes called ‘covert bullying’, and for good reason. It is one of the hardest to notice and stop because it is often done subtly and behind the back of the special needs child. Its effect on the child’s social status, however, is quite obvious. This may look like rumor spreading, playing jokes on the child, encouraging others to exclude the child and further damaging his or her already shaky social status in school.

  3. Emotional Bullying may look like foul language, rude name calling and teasing. But it can also look like the subtle degrading of a child through jokes about his or her physical, mental or academic challenges, sexual orientation, skin color, economic status or religious affiliation.

  4. Cyber Bullying can be done in a way that is obvious to a special needs student but also covertly, or behind their back. This can look like all of the elements of emotional bullying, but done via a computer. This includes taunting messages, photos and videos sent by email or posted online, gossip spread across social media websites or the deliberate exclusion of a child from an online group.

Again, each type of bullying can range from obvious to quite subtle, but all should be taken seriously.

Study finds that students with disabilities are bullied more often

Bullying rates among children with special needs ranged from 24 to 34 percent in high school, according to a School Psychology Quarterly study from 2012. This was 1.5 times the rate of bullying experienced by students not receiving special education services.

Special needs students are frequently bullied regardless of their disability. However, students with autism and orthopedic impairments are at the greatest risk for becoming victims.

Once bullied, students with autism and physical impairments are at high risk for being bullied repeatedly in the future.

The effects of bullying are usually noticeable, when we know what to look for

A student with disabilities may experience anxiety, depression and physical health problems.

Some warning signs that your special needs child is experiencing bullying, harassment or intimidation in school:

  • Injuries that are difficult to explain
  • Lost or damaged belongings like clothing, books, electronics, jewelry
  • Frequent headaches or stomach aches, feeling sick or faking illness
  • Changes in eating habits - suddenly skipping meals or binge eating
  • Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares
  • Loss of interest in school, not wanting to go to school or declining performance in class
  • Self-destructive behavior, including harming themselves, talking about suicide or running away from home

For more on determining whether your special needs child is being bullied at school, visit the Warning Signs Checklist at StopBullying.gov.

When a child is being bullied at school, s/he has legal rights

The U.S. Department of Education wrote letters about the problem of children with disabilities being bullied in 2013. (These are also called the Dear Colleagues letters on Bullying of Students with Disabilities). The goal of these letters was make clear how bullying negatively impacts a student’s education and growth.

Bullying of students with disabilities could also be considered a violation of a student’s right to FAPE. In another letter, the Department clarified that civil rights protections of students applied. This means that students under the IDEA were also covered under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.

According to the letters, schools should call a meeting once they are aware of a bullying incident. This meeting should include the student’s IEP team or Section 504 team.

The Dear Colleagues letters made clear the effects of bullying on special needs children in school. But they didn’t address how to help the child bullied at school. There are no rules which clearly define how much or what kind of bullying should lead to an IEP or Section 504 team meeting. Schools are often ill-equipped to address all instances of children with disabilities being bullied. (For example, victims may not recognize that they are being bullied.)

How we can help special needs children who are being bullied

To combat bullying, Chad Rose, an assistant professor of special education at the University of Missouri, suggests that educators should increase the instruction of social-emotional skills for all students. Rose believes that special needs students might require additional instruction on how to express themselves with their classmates. Social and emotional instruction is given less priority than academic learning. As a result, adults commonly believe students should learn how to respond to social situations naturally. But without the right interventions, students with disabilities risk becoming the victims of systemic bullying.

Schools should attempt to develop a culture in which bullying is viewed as unacceptable behavior. Schools should also encourage students to recognize bullying and give them the necessary tools to respond. They should make sure students know who to communicate with when bullying occurs.

Schools can also develop programs in which students with disabilities interact with students in the regular classroom.

If you believe your child with special needs is being bullied, you should:

  • Be supportive and tell the child that it’s not her fault. Do not encourage the child to fight back.
  • Be aware of signs of bullying, even if the child doesn’t call it that. Children with disabilities do not always realize they are being bullied.
  • Talk with the child’s teacher right away to see whether he can help.
  • Contact the principal in writing if the bullying or harassment is severe or the teacher doesn’t fix the problem. Explain what happened in detail and ask for a prompt response.
  • Ask the school district to meet with the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team or the Section 504 team. This will ensure the school is taking steps to stop the bullying. Discuss any supportive services or counseling your child may need because of the harassment.
  • Work with the school to prevent bullying. Start a bullying prevention program that includes support systems for bullied children.
  • Be persistent. Talk regularly with the child and with school staff to see whether the behavior has stopped.

For more tips on how to help a child being bullied at school, visit the Bullying Tip Sheet at StopBullying.gov.

When do you need to talk to school bullying lawyer?

If you believe your child has been bullied at school and are not getting results from meetings with your child’s school, an education lawyer can help. A lawyer can determine the best way forward or if need be, whether suing a school district for bullying makes sense.

An education law attorney specializing in school bullying cases can work with your IEP or Section 504 team, help negotiate with the school or district, or represent you at hearings if needed.


Additional school bullying resources:

Pennsylvania Anti-Bullying Laws & Policies
Stomp Out Bullying: Special Needs Kids And Bullying
Incident Highlights Bullying Risk for Those With Disabilities”, Education Week, Samuels Christina (January 17, 2017)

Related articles:

Is Your Child Making Progress On The IEP?: Part One

Return to Students' Rights Blog

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