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  • Writer's pictureJeff N. Eckert

Bullying affects students with disabilities in unseen ways

Updated: Feb 1, 2020

Student sitting with his head down in front of lockers because of bullying.

Bullying affects students across the state and nation.

For far too many students in Florida, and across the nation, bullying is a fact of life. According to the U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, between 1 in 4 students say they have been bullied at school; 49% of children in grades 4–12 reported being bullied by other students at school at least once during the past month and about 20% of students ages 12-18 experienced bullying. An astounding 70.6% of young people say they have seen bullying in their schools and 70.4% of school staff have witnessed incidents of bullying. The increase in cyberbullying occurring online through texting and social media has added another dimension to the bullying crisis.

Florida law defines bulling as systematically and chronically inflicting physical hurt or psychological distress on one or more students and may involve:

  1. Teasing

  2. Social exclusion

  3. Threat

  4. Intimidation

  5. Stalking

  6. Physical violence

  7. Theft

  8. Sexual, religious, or racial harassment

  9. Public or private humiliation

  10. Destruction of property

Clearly, bullying and harassment cover a broad range of conduct, but the adverse effects of these behaviors can leave an impact that lasts a lifetime. Kids who are bullied are more likely to experience:

  • Depression and anxiety - Signs of these include increased feelings of sadness and loneliness, changes in sleep and eating patterns, and loss of interest in activities they used to enjoy. These issues may persist into adulthood.

  • Health complaints - Physiological symptoms may develop such as ulcers, headaches, and other changes in physical and mental health.

  • Decreased academic achievement - GPA, standardized test scores, and school participation. They are more likely to miss, skip, or drop out of school.

©UNICEF/UN0272127/Akbar Junior A young person in Indonesia demonstrates how to be U-Reporter using WhatsApp application and become an agent of change

Harassment interferes with a student’s educational

performance, opportunities, or benefits.

Another aspect of bullying is harassment. Under Florida law, harassment is any threatening, insulting, or dehumanizing gesture, use of data or computer software, or written, verbal, or physical conduct directed against a student or school employee that:

  1. Places a student or school employee in reasonable fear of harm to his or her person or damage to his or her property;

  2. Has the effect of substantially interfering with a student’s educational performance, opportunities, or benefits; or

  3. Has the effect of substantially disrupting the orderly operation of a school

Some of the procedures that school districts are required to have in place to address bullying or harassment include:

  • A procedure for receiving reports of an alleged act of bullying or harassment, including provisions that permit a person to anonymously report such an act (formal disciplinary action cannot be based solely on an anonymous report).

  • A procedure for the prompt investigation of a report of bullying or harassment and the persons responsible for the investigation.*

  • A procedure for providing immediate notification to the parents of a victim of bullying or harassment and the parents of the perpetrator of an act of bullying or harassment.

  • A procedure to refer victims and perpetrators of bullying or harassment for counseling.

  • A procedure for regularly reporting to a victim’s parents the actions taken to protect the victim.

* Note: in certain cases, the school district must offer the parent an opportunity to

enroll his or her student in another public school that has capacity or to request and

receive a scholarship to attend an eligible private school.

Students with disabilities have additional protections

under federal anti-discrimination laws.

The research has shown that students with disabilities are affected by bullying and harassment disproportionately. For these students, bullying behavior can become “disability harassment,” which is prohibited under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.

While students with disabilities may have protections under these federal laws and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), not enough parents are being properly informed of their child's rights. According to the Office of Civil Rights (OCR), bullying or harassment on any basis can result in a denial of FAPE under IDEA and Section 504 that must be remedied. Some warning signs for educators and parents to be aware of include a sudden decline in grades, the onset of emotional outbursts, an increase in the frequency or intensity of behavioral interruptions, or a rise in missed classes or sessions of special education or related services.

However, according to OCR's guidance, unless it is clear from the school’s investigation into the bullying conduct that there was no effect on the student with a disability’s receipt of FAPE, the school should, as a best practice, promptly convene the IEP team or the Section 504 team to determine whether, and to what extent: (1) the student’s educational needs have changed; (2) the bullying impacted the student’s receipt of IDEA FAPE services or Section 504 FAPE services; and (3) additional or different services, if any, are needed, and to ensure any needed changes are made promptly. A key question centers on whether the IEP itself is no longer designed to provide a meaningful benefit due to the effects of the disability-based bullying or harassment towards the student.

Ultimately, all students deserve to attend school without fear of bullying or harassment. Parents of students with disabilities will need to be especially mindful of any changes in their child's behavior that may be the result of disability-based bullying or harassment. Educators play a key role in monitoring and supervising the school environment and conducting meaningful investigations when reports are made. School district policies are helpful but its more than the thought that counts. Our students deserve safe learning environments and it is the school district's responsibility to provide it to them.




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