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Bullying: Another challenge for students with disabilities

Heading back to school is stressful for most families, but it can be downright scary for students who are bullied.

Despite state and federal laws designed to protect all students from bullying, many students — especially those with disabilities — are victims of bullying behavior that prevents them from learning in a positive and safe environment.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, children with disabilities are at an increased risk of being bullied or bullying others. This is due to factors such as physical vulnerability, atypical behaviors, and difficulty with communication and social skills. In addition, students with disabilities may lack effective self-advocacy skills to address bullying issues on their own. Schools and parents must take into consideration the unique factors that may affect a child with special needs in order to stop the bullying.

Federal and state laws require schools to prevent and address bullying and disability harassment of students with disabilities. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) and Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) have it made clear that schools must ensure that students with disabilities continue to receive a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE), even if they are being bullied. This is a legal right guaranteed under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Any bullying of a student with a disability that prevents him from receiving meaningful educational benefit may mean he is being denied a free appropriate public education. Therefore, schools must take steps to prevent and stop bullying. OCR published a parent fact sheet1 and issued a guidance letter2 about a school’s obligation to address disability harassment. These documents provide useful information, and they can help parents advocate for their children’s needs and help school staff understand their obligations.

If a child being bullied has an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a Section 504 Plan, her parent can request an IEP or 504 team meeting to discuss the problem. Note that students with IEPs are protected by Section 504 too, so even if a child has an IEP and not a 504 plan, OCR’s guidance letter applies.

Parents of children with IEPs can also contact the N.C. Department of Public Instruction (DPI) and request a mediator to help resolve the bullying issue. In some situations, parents may want to file a formal complaint against the school. Instructions for requesting a mediator and filing a formal complaint can be found on the dispute resolution page of NCDPI’s website.

North Carolina law prohibits bullying — regardless of whether or not the student being bullied has an IEP or 504 plan. It also does not matter whether or not the bullying is related to the student’s disability or is interfering with his special education. Under state law, the school district or charter school must have a policy that prohibits bullying or harassing behavior. That policy can usually be found in the school’s student and employee handbooks. Parents can follow the school district’s procedures for filing a grievance related to the bullying, which may include filing a formal grievance with the superintendent. If the issue is not resolved at the first level of the grievance, parents have the right to appeal to the next level of the school administration, all the way up to the school board.

Show 2 footnotes

Lucy Ireland

Lucy joined Disability Rights NC in August 2015 as a Disability Law Fellow on the Special Education Team.