Bullying of Students with Disabilities Addressed in Guidance to America’s Schools

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Bullying of Students with Disabilities Addressed in Guidance to America’s Schools

October 21, 2014

As part of National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month, the U.S. Education Department's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) today issued guidance to schools reminding them that bullying is wrong and must not be tolerated—including against America's 6.5 million students with disabilities.

The Department issued guidance in the form of a letter to educators detailing public schools' responsibilities under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and Title II of Americans with Disabilities Act regarding the bullying of students with disabilities. If a student with a disability is being bullied, federal law requires schools to take immediate and appropriate action to investigate the issue and, as necessary, take steps to stop the bullying and prevent it from recurring.

"While there is broad consensus that bullying cannot be tolerated, the sad reality is that bullying persists in our schools today, especially for students with disabilities," said Catherine E. Lhamon, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights. "Basic decency and respect demand that our schools ensure that all their students learn in a safe environment. I look forward to continuing our work with schools to address and reduce incidents of bullying so that no student is limited in his or her ability to participate in and benefit from all that our educational programs have to offer."

Since 2009, OCR has received more than 2,000 complaints regarding the bullying of students with disabilities in the nation's public elementary and secondary schools.

Today's guidance builds upon anti-bullying guidance the Department has issued in recent years concerning schools' legal obligations to fix the problem, including:

  • A 2013 dear colleague letter and enclosure by the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) clarifying that when bullying of a student with a disability results in the student not receiving meaningful educational benefit under IDEA, the school must remedy the problem, regardless of whether the bullying was based on the student's disability.
  • A 2010 dear colleague letter by the OCR, which elaborated on potential violations when bullying and harassment is based on race, color, national origin, sex, or disability.
  • A 2000 dear colleague letter by the OCR and OSERS, which explained that bullying based on disability may violate civil rights laws enforced by OCR as well as interfere with a student's receipt of special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

The latest letter makes clear that the protections for students with disabilities who are bullied on any basis extend to the roughly three quarters of a million students who are not eligible for IDEA services but are entitled to services under the broader Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. That law bars discrimination on the basis of disability in all programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance.

Help is available for those who are either targets of disability bullying or know of someone who might be, such as:

  • A fact sheet for parents on schools' obligations under federal law to address bullying. The fact sheet is also available in Spanish.
  • Visiting the federal Web site, www.stopbullying.gov, which provides useful information on bullying prevention and remedies.
  • Asking to meet with the student's team that designs his or her individualized education program—the IEP or Section 504 teams.
  • Asking to meet with the principal or school district's special education coordinators to have the school address bullying concerns.
  • Seeking help from OCR. The office investigates complaints of disability discrimination at schools. To learn more about federal civil rights laws or how to file a complaint, contact OCR at 800-421-3481 (TDD: 800-877-8339), or ocr@ed.gov. OCR's Web site is www.ed.gov/ocr. To fill out a complaint form online, go to http://www.ed.gov/ocr/complaintintro.html.

To view OCR's guidance detailing public schools' responsibilities regarding the bullying of students with disabilities in Spanish, click here.