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School Climate & Safety

Incident Highlights Bullying Risk for Those With Disabilities

By Christina A. Samuels — January 17, 2017 4 min read
David Boyd, the brother-in-law of an 18-year-old Chicago man with disabilities who was assaulted, speaks at a news conference. Four people have been charged with hate crimes in the incident. The incident has put a spotlight on bullying and assault risk to those with disabilities, including students, are at higher risk of bullying and assault, studies show.

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 thought would be a sleepover.

Instead, police say, the man was driven around in a stolen van, then tied up, taunted, and abused for hours, with a portion of the attack streamed on the internet.

Four African-Americans have been arrested and face felony criminal charges of aggravated kidnapping, hate crime, and aggravated battery, among others, in connection with the attack on the victim, who is white. A spokesman for the Chicago police department said that the hate crimes charges were based on the suspects’ use of racial slurs, as well as references to his disability.

Neither the man nor the exact nature of his disability has been identified. But the attack—an example of both criminal assault and bullying—is a reminder that children and youth with mental, physical, or emotional disabilities are uniquely vulnerable, something federal education officials have aimed to address through repeated guidance.

Defining bullying as “repeated exposure to aggressive acts over time intended to cause physical harm, psychological distress, or humiliation,” a 2012 study in School Psychology Quarterly found that the bullying rates among children with disabilities ranged from about 24 percent in elementary school to 34 percent for high school students. That’s as much as 1.5 times the rate of bullying experienced by students without disabilities.

The rate of bully victimization was highest for students with emotional disturbance, across grade levels. Elementary and middle school students with autism and high school students with orthopedic impairments were at the greatest risk of experiencing repeated victimization.

The study also found that students with disabilities who were bullied once were found to be at high risk of being bullied repeatedly, suggesting the importance of antibullying efforts to stop the cycle.

The U.S. Department of Education has made it clear in guidance letters that bullying of students with disabilities could be considered a violation of that student’s right to a free, appropriate public education.

Federal Guidance

In 2013, the Education Department noted that addressing bullying is critical, not just because of the potential civil rights violations but because even less severe bullying “can undermine a student’s ability to meet his or her full potential.”

The 2013 letter was aimed at students covered under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In 2014, an additional letter clarified that the civil rights protections also extend to students covered under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. This act covers students with disabilities such as diabetes, mental health disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or orthopedic impairments.

If a school is aware a student with disabilities is being bullied, one of its first steps should be to convene a meeting of the parents and the educators that make up that student’s individualized education program team, or Section 504 team. There are no hard-and-fast rules as to how much bullying should trigger this response. But school officials should look to see if the student’s grades have suddenly dropped, if the bullied student is experiencing emotional outbursts or behavioral interruptions, or if the student is missing more classes.

But one challenge faced by students with disabilities is that they may not always recognize bullying for what it is. In 2014, a Maryland teen 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. In an interview with the Washington Post, the teen, who has autism, said that he wanted to resume his relationship with the classmates, one of whom he called his girlfriend.

Teaching Life Skills

Chad A. Rose, an assistant professor of special education at the University of Missouri, specializes in studying bullying among students with disabilities and prevention efforts.

Rose’s work points to the importance of explicit instruction in social-emotional skills for all students, not just students with disabilities, he said. But students with disabilities might need targeted instruction in social and communication skills, such as learning to express themselves effectively with their peers.

Social and emotional learning often takes a back seat to academic learning, Rose said. And adults often believe that students should learn naturally how to respond to certain situations, but that type of learning needs to be reinforced over time, he said.

“What we’re talking about is teaching students life skills,” Rose said.

He notes, however, that many anti-bullying mandates are unfunded. Schools may end up following the letter of the law, without creating a strong ethos that states that bullying is unacceptable. All schools should make sure that students are given tools to recognize bullying, to respond to it themselves, and to know who to tell about it, he said.

“All kids have the right to go to school in a bully-free environment,” he said.

Julie Hertzog, the director of PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center in Minneapolis, has personal experience with building a school environment that rejects bullying. (PACER, short for Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights, receives funds from the federal office of special education programs to support its work.)

Hertzog’s son David, now 20, has Down syndrome and is nonverbal. Hertzog knew that it would be difficult to know if he was being bullied at school. So she enlisted the support of his friends. That eventually evolved into a club for students with and without disabilities.

“Just taking that first small step can be really successful,” Hertzog said.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 18, 2017 edition of Education Week as Incident Highlights Bullying Risks for Those With Disabilities


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