One out of five children experiences bullying. Children with disabilities are more likely to be bullied than their peers. It was found that “35.3% of students with behavioral and emotional disorders, 33.9% of students with autism, 24.3% of students with intellectual disabilities, 20.8% of students with health impairments, and 19% of students with specific learning disabilities face high levels of bullying victimization.”

Any form of bullying can cause a child to develop special healthcare and mental health needs. Appropriate anti-bullying prevention and intervention strategies help both the victim and the bully. While evidence-based bullying prevention and intervention strategies help all children, there are specific safeguards and parent rights under IDEA and Section 504 that enforce additional approaches when the “victim” and/or the bully have special needs.

It is imperative for schools to use evidence-based bullying prevention and intervention programs. Your local school district is mandated to immediately address any form of bullying by conducting an investigation to determine effective steps to address parent concerns and intervene on the student’s behalf.

School administrators, teachers, families, and students themselves need to recognize that bullying is not a “childhood rite of passage.” Bullying causes lasting harmful effects that can negatively affect a child’s health and well-being well into adulthood and is no longer tolerated. School Districts are required to hold a “no tolerance” policy when it comes to bullying. Parents should demand immediate intervention from their local school district if their child is experiencing bullying or if you suspect your child is being bullied.

Types of Bullying

Bullying comes in many forms. It can be physical bullying, such as hitting or pushing or be emotional, such as verbal insults and harassment, or social bullying, such as exclusion. Cyberbullying adds the component of making the bullying widely “public” via social media. Bullying can involve one or all of these forms. For example, a student with cognitive disabilities may be pushed aside in the hallway, being called the “R-Word” in the cafeteria, not allowed to play ball with other children at recess, and then made fun of online.

Detrimental Effects of Bullying

Bullying adversely affects children in many ways. Some of these are:

  • Physical injury
  • Loss of self-esteem
  • Decrease in academic performance evidenced by lack of progress or regression
  • School avoidance/School refusal
  • Excessive truancies
  • Increased anxiety or depression
  • Increased drop-out rates
  • Self-harm/self-injurious behaviors
  • Suicidal ideology or suicide (especially due to cyberbullying due to its pervasiveness)

Protections For Students with Disabilities

It is common practice for IEP teams to pass the buck when it comes to bullying. When parents bring concerns about bullying to an IEP meeting, the go-to response is, “Bullying is not an IEP issue. Please call a meeting with the principle.”

This could not be further from the truth.

Students with disabilities have additional protections against bullying and harassment under federal laws. Students with IEPs (individualized education programs) fall under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Students with 504 plans are covered by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) issued guidance to school districts regarding bullying. (See reference below.)

If families are having problems with bullying of their child with special needs, IDEA and Section 504 endows parents with the right to immediately call an IEP meeting. In addition, it is important to bring your concerns to the administration by writing a letter to the Special Education Director, Superintendent, and School Board.

Bullying of a student on the basis of his or her disability may result in a disability-based harassment violation under Section 504 and Title II.

As explained in OCR’s 2010 Dear Colleague Letter on Harassment and Bullying, (See OCR letter below), when a school knows or should know of bullying conduct based on a student’s disability, it must take immediate and appropriate action to investigate or otherwise determine what occurred.

The bullying on any basis of a student with a disability who is receiving IDEA FAPE services or Section 504 FAPE services can result in the denial of FAPE that must be remedied under Section 504.

The OSERS 2013 Dear Colleague Letter clarified that, under IDEA, as part of a school’s appropriate response to bullying on any basis, the school should convene the IEP team meeting to determine whether, as a result of the effects of the bullying, the student’s needs have changed such that the IEP is no longer designed to provide a meaningful educational benefit. If the IEP is no longer designed to provide a meaningful educational benefit to the student, the IEP team must determine the extent to which additional or different IDEA FAPE services are needed to address the student’s individualized needs and then revise the IEP accordingly.

So, if your child is being bullied in any form, please call an IEP meeting immediately. If the team tries to pass the buck and refers you to the principal, don’t let them. Hold them accountable to what the law actually requires of them. Print out a copy of the OCR Guidance letter and read it to them. Don’t allow your child to be bullied. Our kids already have so many challenges to overcome and bullying should not be one of them! The OCR Guidance letter explains the relationship between bullying and the denial of FAPE under Section 504 and must be remedied.

Bullying Resources

OCR letter: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights – Guidance to Schools.

Wrightslaw has information specific to bullying of children with special needs. Data is provided on the prevalence of bullying of students with disabilities.\

If you haven’t joined our Private Special Education Parent Empowerment Facebook Group yet, you should check it out here.

Here’s what parents are saying about the group:

“Thank you for sharing your knowledge, Valerie! This world needs more people willing to speak the truth.”

“Thank you, Valerie. I appreciate you. After 12 years of trying to navigate this, your help is truly welcomed. You are a blessing”


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