Bullying of Kids with Disabilities : How Can We Make it Stop?

Published on April 22, 2009 by Jennifer Laviano

Yet another sad story of a child who committed suicide because he was being bullied at school.  Poor Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover of Massachusetts killed himself, apparently to put an end to the constant bullying to which he was subjected by his peers at school.  Reportedly, Carl was routinely humiliated based on perceptions on his tormentors’ part that he was gay.  This case is painfully emblematic of so many others, in which children who are seen as being on the periphery of the “accepted” social order are key targets for bullying.

Enter most kids with special education needs.

I don’t believe I have had a week pass in the many years I have been practicing special education law that an incident of bullying has not been brought to my attention.  I discussed it with the mother of one of my clients today, and I will probably discuss it with another tomorrow.  And it breaks my heart.

Children with disabilities are prime targets for this kind of student-on-student harassment and abuse.  Very often the very attributes of a disability are exactly the kinds of things that make kids stand out:  difficulty in understanding social cues, the pragmatics of language, impulsivity, physical differences, etc.  Add to those all of the usual joys of adolescence, and the advent of cyber-bullying, and you have a recipe for disaster.

The United States Department of Education has taken the official position that disability-based harassment has no acceptable place in our public schools.   In a July 2000 “Dear Colleague” letter (http://www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/disabharassltr.html), the USDE points out that such practices can result in denying students with special education needs access to their education.

It is actually a very well-written letter, strongly condemning the targeting of children with disabilities.

A letter written nearly a decade ago.

And things have only gotten worse.

So what can we do about it?  Part of the problem is that there is no national federal legislation addressing bullying, let alone bullying protection specific to children with disabilities.  Even in many of the States that have anti-bullying legislation, they generally do not have any “private cause of action” included in their statutes.  This means that the violation of that legislation is of no real legal consequence.  As a result, the only way to vindicate cases of bullying through the courts is by using other statutory and Constitutional protections.

But what about the IDEA?  For children with special education needs who are being bullied, the first question we should ask when we learn of the situation is this:  “does the IEP need to be revised?”  Perhaps the IEP team needs to reconsider whether the student is being given appropriate instruction to learn the skills necessary to handle social situations appropriately.  Maybe the student needs additional support in order to properly interact with his or her peers.

You may think I am blaming the victim here, as in “if only he acted more ‘normal’ he wouldn’t be bullied.”  No, that is not what I am saying.   At all.  Rather, I am asking whether the characteristics of many disabilities that make these kids amazingly attractive to bullies might be less problematic if they were being properly addressed in a child’s special education program.

If your child with special needs is being bullied, do not overlook his or her IEP and how you can adjust it to address the bullying.  Until we have national legislation on bullying in general, and bullying of children with disabilities in particular, this may be the best we can do to keep kids safe.   For now.

4 Responses to Bullying of Kids with Disabilities : How Can We Make it Stop?

  1. Dana Jonson
    April 23rd, 2009 | 11:19 am

    I could not agree with you more! It is the very rare case that I speak to a Parent and bullying is not raised on some level. It is tragic and unacceptable that any child does not have better protections/remedies against bullying. And I absolutely think that for a child with special education needs the IEP/PPT meeting is a good place to possibly address the issues.

  2. Heather
    September 29th, 2010 | 10:05 pm

    I am a mother of a newly diagnosed child with SMS and am FURIOUS at your suggestion that the IEP should just be addressed so that the child can try to appear less disabled. Whether you say it is blaming the victim or not, that is exactly what you are doing! How about punishing the offending child and not allowing them back in public school if they continue to offend? How about sending them off to juvenile detention where they belong?

  3. Jennifer Laviano
    September 30th, 2010 | 12:02 am

    Heather, I just re-read my post since it’s been a while since I wrote it, and I’m sorry but I do not see how you are interpreting my suggestions that way. I have many clients whose social skills deficits are directly a result of their disability; I expect their IEPs to address social skills just as I would expect that a child who has dyslexia would have an IEP that addresses reading. I do not see this as asking them to “appear less disabled” and in fairness I think my blog specifically stated that. Further, whether we like it or not, children who target other children also have a right to be educated (in fact, some of the kids we call “bullies” also have IEPs) and the law doesn’t allow us to just kick kids out of the public schools indefinitely. What we all need to be focusing on is creating a more positive and safe school environment for all kids. But for my clients who are targeted, I want to make sure they’re given any and all necessary supports to empower them in school and beyond.

  4. Meg
    January 31st, 2012 | 12:10 pm

    My own special needs son (1st grade) was the target of bullying by some in his general ed class. I witnessed it myself in the school cafeteria on several occasions – spoke with the school psychologist and teacher in the lunchroom. It was never addressed (found out at his annual ARD neither of them even mentioned it to anyone). Very sad that the school didn’t want to do anything about it.