Most schools have a zero tolerance policy when it comes to bullying, but ultimately that is not enough if the administration turns a blind eye to the situation. It’s not enough to retroactively discipline bullies after the fact, the school administration needs to get involved early and often. This is especially true if the bullying is due to your child’s disability. One of the largest groups of children who are bullied in public schools, are children with disabilities.
I was recently told a story by a High School Vice-Principal that amazed me. The first week of school started and a new fresh group of 9th graders entered his school. Within that first week, The Vice-Principal ended up with a group of 8 students in his office who had physically assaulted one of their classmates. What he learned from the child that was assaulted was that this group of students had been bullying him since elementary school and it had finally erupted into a physical assault. The Vice-Principal started the expulsion process on the ring leader and suspended a number of the others. He gave all involved a serious lecture about any future consequences if the bullying continued. It did not take more than a few hours before the bullying started again. This group of students had been getting away with the bullying for so many years that the threat of serious consequences meant nothing to them. At this point, the bullying had become so pervasive the only thing the parents could do to protect the child was transfer him to another school. The Vice-Principal also ended up expelling many of the students involved but by the time these students started in his school it had gone on too long to control.
What can we do as parents if our children with disabilities are getting bullied in school? If you feel the School did not take action to correct the situation in an acceptable manner and the bullying continues, then talk to an attorney about writing a “Gebser letter” to your school. In a 1998 Supreme Court decision for Gebser v. Lago Vista School District the court concluded that in order to receive damages under a Title IX discrimination suit you must prove that the school district actually knew about the offense and refused to take action to correct it. Thus, the term “Gebser Letter” was coined to mean a letter notifying a school district employee with authority about the discrimination or bullying.
The following are 10 suggested steps to follow when parents choose to write a “Gebser letter” to the School District (These are taken from the late attorney Reed Martin’s “10 steps to making a successful complaint”).
- In writing, address the notification to a specific person and date the letter.
- Write the letter to a person who has the authority to investigate and the authority to correct the wrong.
- Note that the school district is a recipient of federal financial assistance.
- State the past or continuing discriminatory activity against your child.
- State that the school district has control over both the site of the discrimination and over any school personnel involved.
- Explain that the discrimination was not a single act but was severe and pervasive.
- Tell how the discrimination excluded your child from continued participation in school or denied your child the benefits to which other students in school have access.
- Explain, as well as you can, what you would like the school to do to stop the discrimination or to remediate the harm the discrimination has done to your child.
- Ask for a copy of a school district grievance procedure under Section 504 (even if your child has an IEP under IDEA). Not having this information may result in continued discrimination.
- State that if the person receiving this letter does not investigate or does not take effective corrective action, that you may claim that the district showed deliberate indifference to the discrimination. You may also want to add a date you expect to hear back from the district in regards to your letter.
Bullying is a serious matter that when gone on too long can easily escalate to the point of no return. Don’t let this happen with your child. If your communication with the School is not working and the bullying continues I highly recommend calling a special education attorney about using a “Gebser letter”. They can be highly effective, but you must also realize they are very serious and you should not send a “Gebser letter” without having talked it through with a professional.