Keeping Students with Disabilities Safe from Bullying

As Secretary Duncan has noted, the Department of Education is committed to making sure that all of our young people grow up free of fear, violence, and bullying. Bullying not only threatens a student’s physical and emotional safety at school, but fosters a climate of fear and disrespect, creating conditions that negatively impact learning—undermining students’ ability to achieve to their full potential. Unfortunately, we know that children with disabilities are disproportionately affected by bullying.

back_to_school_billboardFactors such as physical vulnerability, social skills challenges, or intolerant environments may increase the risk of bullying. 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. We must do everything we can to ensure that our schools are safe and positive learning  environments—where all students can learn.

To that end, today, ED’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) issued guidance to educators and stakeholders on the matter of bullying of students with disabilities. This guidance provides an overview of school districts’ responsibilities to ensure that students with disabilities who are subject to bullying continue to receive free appropriate public education (FAPE) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Under IDEA, States and school districts are obligated to ensure that students with disabilities receive FAPE in the least restrictive environment (LRE). This guidance explains that any bullying of a student with disabilities which results in the student not receiving meaningful educational benefit is considered a denial of FAPE. Furthermore, this letter notes that certain changes to an educational program of a student with a disability (e.g., placement in a more restricted “protected” setting to avoid bullying behavior) may constitute a denial of FAPE in the LRE.

Schools have an obligation to ensure that a student with disabilities who is bullied, continues to receive FAPE as outlined in his or her individualized education program (IEP). IEPs, as well as 504 plans, can be useful in outlining specialized approaches for preventing and responding to bullying, as well as providing additional supports and services to students with disabilities. This guidance also offers effective evidence-based practices for preventing and addressing bullying.

“This guidance is a significant step forward for students facing bullying,” said Ari Ne’eman, President of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, a leading national advocacy organization. “We applaud and commend the Department for reinforcing that when a child is being bullied, it is inappropriate to ‘blame the victim’ and remove them from the general education classroom. School districts have an obligation to address the source of the problem –the stigma and prejudice that drives bullying behavior.”

Bullying of any student simply cannot be tolerated in our schools. A school where children don’t feel safe is a school where children struggle to learn. Every student deserves to thrive in a safe school and classroom free from bullying.

Please see the Dear Colleague Letter on bullying and its accompanying enclosure below or on this OSERS policy letters page.

For additional information on preventing bullying, please visit StopBullying.gov and view ED’s “It Gets Better” video.

Michael Yudin is acting assistant secretary for ED’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services

22 Comments

  1. Happy to have stumbled upon this. My son is no longer on an IEP . He has Aspergers ,but requires no services. So off to regular classrooms he went, goodbye to all HIS peers where being a little different was acceptable. Bullied and harrassed doesn’t begin to explain 8th grade. Now a freshman, and I just sent off a letter to admin.,school psych,guidance to report the nonsense that has begun already.
    The response I received last year after reporting the other student was ” wow we were a little suprised as this boy is not a known troublemaker” !! And neither is my son lady. So many things I could go on and on about. The “leaders” of the bullies may or may not do the dirty work. They get their minions to do it or else they won’t get to be in the “poplular” crowd. What sickens me is so many of these brats come from extreme wealth or mom/dad are on this board,that board .UGH ! What I’d like to know as a parent, is there any law regarding my school district having to pay another town to educate my son as clearly they can’t do it and I refuse to go from a top notch district to a lesser one or is it limited to only school’s belonging to school choice ?

  2. This is absolutely excellent and very important guidance. The problem is that there are very significant factors, including a new ED initiative, that are really undermining the conditions and actions by schools that will be necessary to accomplish the objectives set forth in this guidance.

    The biggest factor that is undermining the incredible importance of preventing bullying of students with disabilities is the failure to recognize that these students often have poor social skills – that are an underlying factor that generates mistreatment. Further, they often respond in an impulsive manner that then stimulates more harassment. Obviously, it is imperative to address these social, emotional, and behavioral concerns that underlie these situations.

    Under IDEA, schools are required to focus both on academic AND functional skills. Functional skills include social skills. Unfortunately, often the way these skills are addressed are through “behavior management.” While positive behavior management approaches are very necessary for many of these students, this approach is not sufficient to ensure they gain effective social skills. They also desperately need comprehensive instruction in social/emotional skills. Further, these social/emotional skills are also absolutely critical for their success in future employment. They may never need to be able to use algebra, but they certainly need to know how to effectively socially interact with others in the work place.

    Due to the Department’s often myopic focus on test scores, it is basically impossible for special education teachers to do anything other than try to manage student behavior and push reading and math. And it appears this is going to get worse. Instead of preparing “whole children” who are able to function in a happy and successful manner in the world, the pressure for test scores is increasing. Thus, there is an even greater disincentive to help students with disabilities gain the social skills that will prevent them from being targeted by other students.

    Add to this, that any child who does not meet academic standards that are simply unattainable (my son who has profound disabilities in some areas) but who has very special skills that could be furthered and provide the basis for a solid career, who take an alternative diploma, are PREVENTED from being able to access federal funds to further their education.

    What is the logic in preventing students with disabilities from furthering their education in areas where they can be successful because they are incapable of mastering Algebra II?????

    Thus, in far too many ways, what ED is doing to children with disabilities is hampering their ability to gain the social skills to prevent bullying and be a competent and capable employee – and is preventing them from continuing their education so that they can be successful.

    Please explain the logic of this to me.

  3. My son was badly bullied throughout all of his elementary school years. I filed more complaints then can be counted, and the school staff at the time pretty much did nothing. If fact, he was also bullied by some teachers. An example of this would be one teacher found out that my son had a problem with balloons popping, and decided to keep one on his desk and told my son he would pop it if he did not behave. My son was also physically attacked and hit hard enough to leave a welt on his body. Working with the new superintendent I made a deal with the parents and the student that did this that if he left my son alone, I would forget anything ever happened. This worked on this one student. My problem is that my son, due to the peer to peer bullying, teacher bullying, and the fact that nothing was ever done, (until the new superintendent came in), now has a sever emotional disability. He has low frustration levels, no trust for most adults or teachers, and if pushed, will often swear at peers or teachers. This has pushed the superintendent to tell me that if it continues he will be expelled. Now I worry that teachers or students will push him purposely to not have to deal with him anymore. There is one teacher in particular that really pushes him, and most of the students know he has a low frustration level and can get him to react. I have proven that it was the bullying and the fact that nothing was ever done to stop it, that caused his emotional disability, and he does have an IEP because of this. I have gone to the superintendent and told him my concerns about this one teacher, but he has no choice here because Michigan requires PE and this is the class that he teaches. I know he will push my son to react. Its just a matter of time. I need to know my rights, and my sons rights, if my son does end up swearing at this teacher, and ends up expelled. All my sons problems were caused by the school doing nothing to stop the bullying he received. This situation is directly their fault. My son in now starting 9th grade. He is doing his best to keep himself calm.

  4. Diversity & Inclusion need to be integrated into our educational curriculum.
    What can we do?
    Start with K-12 Biased Based Bullying Prevention Education.
    I work for an organization that has been working on this issue since 1996. We focus on teachers and giving them tools they can use in the classroom – something they have been requesting for years. We also know that 75-85% of the teaching force is middle class, white women and that those figures are not projected to change. We also know that most have had maybe one class in “diversity” in their prep for teaching – and that is often taught in the format of “classroom management” – indicating that diversity could pose a problem in your classroom.

    Our organization has learned that the most successful work with teachers is to meet them where they are at and to welcome them into this work that will help them create a learning climate where all children can closer reach their potential. We also focus on early childhood and elementary at the present time. We know that most teachers want to do the right thing, but feel afraid to talk about “human differences” because they are not trained and may get backlash. We also know that some administrators like to check boxes when it comes to “diversity training”, etc. That’s why we created classroom tools that stay in the classroom throughout the year – and focus on bias – through which we can introduce race/ethnicity, immigration, differently-abled, socioeconomic differences, and family diversity. We take the teacher on a learning journey right along with his/her students.

    We have learned the value in sharing stories, using tools that teachers are comfortable with, and providing a safe place for discussion. We believe that we need to welcome people into this journey and that with our children receiving a myriad of negative messages about race, poverty, immigration, special needs, sexual orientation, etc. -we need to create a receptive learning environment where they can feel safe being who they are.

    We have focused our programs on the anti-bias model created by Louise Derman Sparks and have integrated best practices in all components: socio-emotional learning assessment survey, children’s literature, guided discussions, journaling, classroom activities and persona dolls to start the work with teachers and young children.

  5. Way to go Mr. Duncan and Mr. Mayes (as I will not leave him out) you guys are a force to be reckoned with and I so much appreciate your efforts in helping children with delays and disabilities. Good work U.S. Department of Education!!!

  6. Again I find myself in the “devil’s advocate” seat. Let me be clear: I have a son with developmental disabilities. In my opinion, the much-sought full inclusion makes bullying MORE likely, not less. My son DOES need protection; that should not be still another part of a teacher’s job. Yes, he had partial inclusion in music, art and physical education, and was a manager for one of the sports teams, but his academic classes were all in a special education classroom. He also worked in the school cafeteria. He was popular and loved throughout the school. Note: He was not “competing” for the teacher’s attention in a general education classroom, and I think it is unfair to teachers not trained in special education to take on developmentally delayed children.

    • Thank you, Loretta. I agree with you and thankfully the legislative governing board does too. Hopefully your story will be inspiration to the parents, families, and students. Parents know what is best for their child. Therefore, I hope parents and students themselves will speak up and discuss all options on the continuum with the school before consenting to a full inclusion setting
      Two federal laws govern education of children with disabilities, (a) The Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004) and Americans With Disabilities Act. Neither law requires inclusion.

      Instead, the law requires that children with disabilities be educated in the “least restrictive environment appropriate” to meet their “unique needs.” And the IDEA contemplates that the “least restrictive environment” analysis will begin with placement the regular education classroom.

      However, IDEA recognizes that it is not appropriate to place all children in the regular education classroom. Therefore, the law requires school districts to have a “continuum of placements” available, extending from the regular education classroom to residential settings, in order to accommodate the needs of all children with disabilities. Using the continuum concept makes it more likely that each child would be placed appropriately in an environment that is specifically suited to meet his/her needs. The law intends that the degree of “inclusion” be driven by the student’s needs as determined by the IEP team, not by the district’s convenience or the parents’ wishes.

    • Well how about a child such as mine who does not have learning disabilities as it is or were? My son has type 1 diabetes and a hearing loss. He is in a regular classroom and receives speech therapy through the same school (just gets pulled out of class) .I think that it should be an integrated all inclusive matter of training and implementing throughout all the classrooms, all the teachers, all the staff at every school as part of their ciriculum as well as being taught to the pupils. It is not a matter of “taking on” the student with disabilities. It is a matter of taking on the rest of the people and peers that come in contact with these children. (It is these people who need to be educated in the proper way to treat others with diversity differences challenges) Because after all the children with disabilities can thrive and perhaps be mainstreamed into the regular classrooms if we were to actually address the problem or lack of knowledge or ignorance that the rest of the people have. It is their responsability and theirs alone. Why should a child with disabilities be even more denied the rights under FAPE and IDEA. They are challenged everyday as is it and now you want to put upon them the ignorance and intolleration of the rest of you? shame on you.

    • I love you Tom. What if the bullies are teachers. The very nature of segregated education for children with disabilities sets up a scapegoated class of children and when you put up a sign that says: “Hey, we’ll pay you to work in hidden places that are poorly supervised, with access to vulnerable children, many of whom cannot speak or defend themselves” Its pretty scary who shows up for the job sometimes. There are awesome teachers out there… I just find that the majority of them are in general education classes. Then again, they can bully disabled students too. My granddaughter is doing play therapy right now over witnessing the abuse of a child in her kindergarten class/ What if the teacher is the bully?

    • Great question Tom. Also, What if the Principal is the Bully. We are in a legal battle,where the principal is the bully. The teachers are afraid to speak up. Where do you go for help with this?

  7. Document, document, document. I have several cases at different stages with my clients who have been bullied. The Federal Office of Civil Rights is the end-enforcer of “Seth’s Law,” and my go-to agency documenting every incident (regardless of degree of incidents) every time an incident happens. I always copy the school district and principal. We have made great headway in our efforts to curb these devastating acts towards kids with disabilities. In one case, we have filed a TORT against a school district who refused to deal with the issues after many attempts. Look forward to being successful in that pursuit.

  8. This blog will no doubt assist in preventing bullying , i appreciate the efforts of the U.S Department of Education for this type of guidance to teachers.

  9. I don’t see how the department is committed to free schools of bullying ……..when they allow states like Colorado to be a “Local Controlled State”……..My daughter sustained a concussion while being a victim of ethnic intimidation,sexual harassment and sexual assault. My child has multiple disabilities.

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