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New Federal Guidance Addresses Anti-Disability Bullying

I made a little visit to the Politics K-12 blog to write a post on new guidance from the Education Department on bullying and when it might rise to the level of a federal civil rights violation.

Though my blog post focused on what the guidance had to say about sexual orientation or religion, the guidance also addressed discrimination based on disability status. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (I've addressed Section 504 and its school context in another post) and the Americans with Disabilities Act both prohibit disability discrimination.

The guidance letter offered some real-life examples of harassment, including this case:

Several classmates repeatedly called a student with a learning disability "stupid," "idiot," and "retard" while in school and on the school bus. On one occasion, these students tackled him, hit him with a school binder, and threw his personal items into the garbage. The student complained to his teachers and guidance counselor that he was continually being taunted and teased. School officials offered him counseling services and a psychiatric evaluation, but did not discipline the offending students. As a result, the harassment continued. The student, who had been performing well academically, became angry, frustrated, and depressed, and often refused to go to school to avoid the harassment.

In this example, the school failed to recognize the misconduct as disability harassment under Section 504 and Title II. The harassing conduct included behavior based on the student's disability, and limited the student's ability to benefit fully from the school's education program (e.g., absenteeism). In failing to investigate and remedy the misconduct, the school did not comply with its obligations under Section 504 and Title II.

In this case, the department said, the school should have adopted a "comprehensive approach to eliminating the hostile environment," including disciplinary action against the harassers, consultation with the district's Section 504/Title II coordinator, special training for staff, and monitoring to ensure the harassment did not resume.

In 2000, the Education Department wrote another guidance letter to schools, focusing exclusively on disability harassment. That letter spells out in more detail the responsibilities of schools to address these problems.

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