Bullying of Students with Disabilities Puts School Districts on the Defensive
While you might think that students with physical disabilities, students who are on the autism spectrum and with other needs might have protections against bullying, a recent case in Maryland underscores that this is not so. According to EdWeek, Jonathan Brice, school support network officer for Baltimore city schools, says that one-quarter of students who are bullied in the system are special education students. Earlier this year, Edmund and Shawna Sullivan sued their Maryland school district and two principals, charging that they had failed to address the bullying of their then-8-year-old son. He had suffered a traumatic brain injury when he was only 13 weeks old; the bullying he endured was such that he had to be placed in a psychiatric institution.
EdWeek reports that the case went to trial last week and a jury ruled in favor of the school district, citing a lack of evidence. Some jurors noted that the parents had not filed a state-mandated bullying and reporting form, which school officials said had been available to them for two years. But one of the principals showed what Ellen Callegary, an attorney and special-education advocate for more than 30 years, called a shocking “lack of empathy” for students with disabilities:
[The principal] …testified that although reports the boy and his sister were beaten and robbed “may have been mentioned,” “bullying has become a buzzword.”
The principal’s reference to bullying as a “buzzword” reveals a deep lack of understanding about the reality of bullying and the additional challenges students with disabilities face in telling teachers, administrators and parents about being bullied. Students with disabilities may already have communication challenges (some students, including my son, may have very minimal language or be non-verbal) or fear that no one will believe them, or fear repercussions from the bullies if they report what happens.
Bullying of Students on the Autism Spectrum
Students with Asperger’s Syndrome, who have numerous challenges in social interactions and reading social situations — and who may be mainstreamed without an aide, as part of an effort to be as independent as possible — are likely targets of bullying. The EdWeek article highlights another case in Maryland schools:
Marcus Harrell, a 9-year-old boy who suffers from attention-deficit disorder and falls on the autism spectrum, was beaten in the head Sept. 30 by a student in the cafeteria at Mary Ann Winterling Elementary School. He then started having nightmares, developed tics and needed heavier doses of medication, according to his grandmother and guardian, Loretta Barr.
He remained out of school for 35 days too scared to go back to the school he loved, she said.
“We tried to get him up to the school, and he kicked and screamed because he didn’t want to go in there,” a tearful Barr said in a recent interview. “I just couldn’t do it to him. So I said, ‘If they won’t protect him, I will.’”
Barr kept Marcus out of school because of real concerns for his safety. Marcus had actually had to visit the hospital as early as 2009 after being “stabbed up and down his back with a pencil by the same student.”Barr filed a bullying and harassment form on October 10 and an October 19 letter from Marcus’ counselor informed the school that “it is imperative that he feels safe and secure in school so that he can continue to advance academically,” says EdWeek. But, on finding the Baltimore city school system unresponsive, Barr contacted the mayor’s office, the Maryland State Department of Education, and even the U.S. Department of Education, each directed her back to the city school system. On top of this, the school district told her that she could face truancy court for keeping Marcus home.
School district CEO Andres Alonso said in a November 30 letter that the school district had offered options to Barr including “transfer options, amendments to Marcus’ IEP and a plan to keep Marcus safe” and rejected Barr’s claim that they had been unresponsive.
Marcus eventually transferred to a different school and Barr was not charged in truancy court. But the case highlights the problems of schools actually addressing bullying. It’s one thing to have policies and make changes to a student’s Individualized Education Plan. No school district is going to say they’re not concerned about keeping students safe. The real challenge is creating a school environment in which bullying is not condoned and in which students feel that they can report being bullied and that something will actually change.
Anti-bullying Laws A Good Start, But Not the Only Solution
A tough new anti-bullying law went into effect in September in New Jersey (where I live). NJ Spotlight reports that school attorneys say that, so far, school districts are interpreting the law in different ways, in regard to definitions of bullying, procedures to investigate and the role of the board of education. The annual Violence and Vandalism Report for each school district in New Jersey shows that bullying incidents continue to rise in number.
In other words, school districts are very much still in the dark about how to address bullying. What if they started by taking the concerns of students, parents and guardians seriously?
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