As a Parent the first reaction you have when someone is bullying your child is to emulate your best Al Capone impression from the Untouchabales.
I want you to get this guy where he breathes! I want you to find this Eliot Ness, I want him dead! I want his family dead! I want his house burned to the ground! (I have edited this quote for language and shortened it but you get the idea)
While this might be your first reaction, this also happens to be the worst possible course of action. When your child is being bullied the number one issue should be your child, not the other child’s punishment. This is an extremely hard pill to swallow but is necessary for your child’s safety and well-being. Children with disabilities are very often the target of bullying but these same children will most likely have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) which can be used as an effective way to address the bullying. Before addressing the issue in an IEP the following steps should be taken in writing:
- Report the bullying to the school;
- Ask for a copy of your school’s bullying policy;
- Ask for the incident/s to be investigated by the Principal and the School;
- Any correspondence should be Carbon Copied (CC’d) to the School District and Special Education Department;
- Ask what the School will be doing, in the short term, during the investigation to ensure the safety and well-being of your child;
- Ask for the outcome of any investigation, not the punishment of the other child, but what steps the School will be putting in place for the long-term to make sure this never happens again; and
- Request an IEP meeting to address all of these issues in your child’s IEP.
Due to privacy laws, the School will most likely not be able to tell you how they punished the other child but if it was determined that it was a reportable action make sure a Police report is filed. In my opinion though, I don’t think punishment alone stops bullying anyway; this is why you need to focus on your child. As far back as 2000 the U.S. Department of Education acknowledged in a Dear Colleague letter that bullying of children with a disability is a serious issue and can cause a denial of a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE):
Disability harassment that adversely affects an elementary or secondary student’s education may also be a denial of FAPE under the IDEA, as well as Section 504 and Title II. The IDEA was enacted to ensure that recipients of IDEA funds make available to students with disabilities the appropriate special education and related services that enable them to access and benefit from public education. The specific services to be provided a student with a disability are set forth in the student’s individualized education program (IEP), which is developed by a team that includes the student’s parents, teachers and, where appropriate, the student. Harassment of a student based on disability may decrease the student’s ability to benefit from his or her education and amount to a denial of FAPE.
I have also written in the past about how the Courts feel about Bullying causing a denial of FAPE:
In a landmark United States District Court decision, Judge Jack Weinstein has ruled that bullying can cause a child with a disability to be denied a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). The case, T.K. versus New York City Department of Education, established a legal test that can be applied to future cases in the Eastern District of New York.
Now that we have determined that Bullying is an IEP issue how do we address it in the IEP? Some strategies include:
• Writing a safety plan, with the child’s input, that outlines what they should do if they are being bullied. At a minimum, this should include who they should report the incident to and where they should go. There should be more than one person and location to make sure there is always someone/someplace to go if the child needs help. It’s very important to develop this plan with the child's input so they feel comfortable using it.
• Having the child shadowed during unstructured times such as lunch, recess or classroom changes to ensure safety.
• Educating the child that the bullying is not their fault; that they have the right to be educated in a safe environment.
• Requesting new assessments to identify 1) the cause of the bullying, and 2) the effect the bullying is having on the child. This might include a social/emotional assessment, mental health assessment, recreation assessment or others.
• Writing new goals in the IEP specific to the bullying. These goals could include coping strategies to utilize when the child is being bullied, educating the child on ways to identify bullying or helping to increase the child’s social skills.
• Putting in place a structured routine during recess and lunch to limit interaction between the students involved. I have seen positive results in separating the class into play groups and giving each play group the choice of two areas to go during recess and lunch. As long as the children are in different areas it should limit their interaction and incidents of bullying. Since you are limiting the entire class, not just the child being bullied, it reduces their feeling that they are being punished even though they are the victim.
• Putting in place additional services to accomplish the new goals. This could include social skills training, school counseling, educational related mental health services, training for school personnel and students, parent training and counseling and many others.
When discussing these strategies and issues with the IEP Team, it’s important to note that it’s irrelevant whether the members of the Team agree that the child is being bullied. All that matters is that the child perceives that they are being bullied; therefore, it is affecting their ability to be educated. Try not to focus solely on what occurred but rather how do we help the child.