Severe bullying of a student with disabilities could deny that student's right to a free, appropriate public education and would need to be addressed under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, according to a guidance letter for districts, states, and building administrators released today from the U.S. Department of Education.
A student who is not receiving "meaningful educational benefit" because of bullying triggers that provision, but even bullying that is less severe can undermine a student's ability to meet his or her full potential, said the letter, written by Melody Musgrove, director of the office of special education programs, and Michael Yudin, the acting assistant secretary of the office of special education and rehabilitative services. If a student with a disability is bullying others, school officials should review that student's individualized education program to see if additional support or changes to the student's environment are necessary.
The letter points to research on bullying and students with disabilities, including a 2012 paper in the Journal of School Psychology which found that students with observable disabilities and behavior disabilities reported being bullied more often than their typically-developing peers.
The department also cited a 2010 study in the Journal of Developmental Behavioral Pediatrics that surveyed 221 youth with varying disabilities and compared their experiences to 73 typically developing children. In addition to being at higher risk of bullying, that study noted that students with disabilities were also at risk of being ostracized from their peers.
To that point, the guidance letter also says that schools cannot unilaterally decide to try to fix a bullying problem by moving a student with disabilities to a more-restrictive "protective" environment, or by changing a student's special education services. That decision must be made by an IEP team and give an opportunity for parents to weigh in, the letter said.
Ari Ne'eman, the president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, supported that reminder. In a statement, he said that the department deserves credit "for reinforcing that when a child is being bullied, it is inappropriate to 'blame the victim' and remove them from the general education classroom. School districts have an obligation to address the source of the problem—the stigma and prejudice that drives bullying behavior."