Bullying of students with disabilities such as diabetes, depression, or food allergies could result in a denial of those students’ right to a free, appropriate public education—and as such requires immediate steps on the part of the school to remedy the situation, according to guidance in a “Dear Colleague” letter released Oct. 21 from U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights.
The most recent guidance refers specifically to students covered by Section 504, a part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. That act prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities by organizations that receive federal money, such as schools.
Section 504 predates the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by two years, and a major difference between the two statutes is how disability is defined. IDEA has 13 disability categories, while Section 504 has a three-part definition that is broader than IDEA.
Though all students covered by IDEA are also covered by Section 504, there’s also a smaller group of Section 504 students who are not a part of IDEA. That group might include students with mental health disorders such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, students with severe food or environmental allergies, or students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
The department says this guidances builds on a 2013 letter from the department that outlined schools’ responsiblity to curb bullying of students who are covered under the IDEA. “While there is broad consensus that bullying is wrong and cannot be tolerated in our schools, the sad reality is that bullying persists in our schools today, and especially so for students with disabilities,” said the letter from Catherine E. Lhamon, the department’s assistant secretary for civil rights.
Schools must take steps to eliminate bullying that is significant enough to “interfere with or limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or opportunities offered by a school,” the guidance states, regardless of whether the bullying is specifically linked to a student’s disability. The guidance says that part of a school’s role in such situations is to convene the student’s “504 team"—parents, teachers and school administrators—to determine if additional or different services are needed. (The individualized education program or “IEP” team makes educational decision for students covered under the IDEA.)
The letter acknowledges that there is no hard-and-fast rule for schools to follow about when to know that bullying has had enough of an impact on a student’s academic success that there has been a violation of his or her ability to receive a free, appropriate public education, or FAPE.
However, the letter states “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. By doing so, the school will be in the best position to ensure the student’s ongoing receipt of FAPE.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.