School Climate & Safety

Bullying and Students With Disabilities: A Resource Guide

By Christina A. Samuels — January 09, 2017 3 min read
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On Dec. 31, an 18-year-old man with a mental disability met up with a former classmate in suburban Chicago, for what his family believed would be a sleepover. Instead, the man was driven around in a stolen van for few days, and then tied up, taunted, and abused for hours, with a portion of the attack streamed on Facebook Live.

Four African-Americans have been arrested and charged with hate crimes, among other charges, in connection with the attack. A spokesman for the Chicago police department said that the hate crimes charges were based on the suspects’ use of racial slurs against the white victim, as well as references to his disability.

This attack is clearly an extreme case, but people with disabilities are uniquely vulnerable to bullying. I’ve compiled some articles and blog posts that I and my colleagues have written about the issue, with an eye toward awareness and prevention.

Researchers and Schools Diverge in Definitions of Bullying



Bullying would seem to be easy to define, but researchers differ in whether the focus should be on an imbalance of power between the bully and his or her victim, or a more objective standard based on certain behaviors. “There’s a tremendous disconnect between how the term is used colloquially by students, teachers, and parents, and how researchers and advocacy types define it,” said David Finkelhor, a sociologist and the director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, in Durham.

Ed. Dept. Addresses Bullying of Students With Disabilities

Severe bullying of a student with disabilities could deny that student’s right to a free, appropriate public education and thus could fall under the Individuals with Disabilities Eduction Act, according to a 2013 guidance letter from the U.S. Department of Education. In 2014, the department followed up that guidance with a similar letter about bullying of students who receive services under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Examples of disabilities covered under Section 504 include mental health disorders such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, severe food or environmental allergies, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Autism Issues Complicate Anti-Bullying Task

This article from 2014 examined the case of a Maryland teen who was bullied by two classmates, but ended up strongly defending them. According to police, the then-16-year-old was captured in cellphone videos being kicked in the groin, dragged by his hair, and coerced onto a frozen lake where he fell through the ice several times. He told a reporter that he wanted to resume his relationship with the classmates, one of whom he called his girlfriend. Students with autism face challenges in picking up on social cues, the article notes.

Special Education Students a Focus in ‘Bully’

Two students with autism spectrum disorder were featured in this 2012 documentary that received a lot of attention. From the article: “The movie also points to another problem: the difficulty some school officials have in handling bullying. In one scene, the parents of a child who committed suicide hold a town hall meeting—which no one from the school district attends.”

Students with Disabilities, Health Issues Bullied More Often

A report published in Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, found that children with special health care needs “had lower motivation to do well in school, more disruptive behaviors, and more-frequent experiences as a bully victim.”

Absolutely Everything Researchers Know About Bullying

In 2013, the American Educational Research Association released an 70-page analysis of then-current bullying research. The document also includes information for school leaders on how to select an evidence-based anti-bullying program.


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A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.


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