In October, just one week after I presented about disabilities and bullying at the Bully Free Tennessee Conference, state officials released a report highlighting the numbers of confirmed bullying cases in our schools last year. According to the state’s report, of 7,555 bullying cases submitted for review last year, 5,478 cases were confirmed. Bear in mind those 5,478 cases were only cases that were actually flagged and reported, which means someone cared enough to follow-up.
Prior national research suggests that as many as 167,000 students are bullied in our schools everyday. So what does all this mean for our nation as a whole and what do we do?
Well, it means families should talk more, and it means we must be more intentional in our efforts to address the problem without causing more trouble for the kids who are prone to be bullied, and without arming bullies with information that makes them wise enough to avoid intervention Yes, it’s that complicated.
Anyone who looks different, acts different, or believes something different from whatever is the cultural norm in the student’s home area is an easy target.
Not only do students with disabilities sometimes look different from non-disabled peers, but students with certain disabilities like dyslexia or dysgraphia also learn differently, and students who learn differently often receive additional resources or extra help which can bring unwanted attention from potential bullies. Let’s face it, growing up is hard but growing up with a disability can bring a whole set of different challenges. Social stigma, misunderstandings, or lack of awareness affect the learning environment when educators,parents, and other students aren’t paying attention.
According to The National Bullying Prevention Center, (PACER Center), “60% of students with disabilities reported being bullied regularly, compared with 25% of all students”. The increasing number of students with disabilities being bullied also recently prompted the US Department of Education to release an August 2013, “Dear Colleague Letter” to remind schools of their responsibility to provide a bully free education, and to implement specific strategies to effectively prevent or stop bullying of all students, especially those with disabilities.
Five Things You May Not Know about Bullying & Students with Disabilities
1. Intervention by Peers is Powerful
Research shows that the most effective solution to bullying is peer-to-peer intervention. Teaching students appropriate ways to casually diffuse situations, change the subject, or deflect criticism, and teaching them to know what type of behavior needs to be reported immediately can make all the difference and even save lives. The Pacer Center maintains that students are more likely to witness the bullying that takes place, and that a peer telling another peer to stop is more effective than adult advice.
2. Official Parent Communication Requires Action from Schools
Parents of students with disabilities are often unaware that they can submit a request for intervention and information regarding bullying in writing, and that the schools and the school districts must respond in a timely and systematic manner. Parents should simply write a formal letter with as many details as possible (dates, times, individuals involved, and a description of the alleged egregious behavior) and the schools will follow-up. Sample Letters for Parents can be found here.
3. Teachers and Parents can include Bullying in IEPs and 504 Plans
Parents and school officials can lawfully include bullying intervention as a part of any IEP (Individualized Education Plan) or 504 plan. Formally including steps for helping students avoid or deal with bullying behaviors (whether the student is a potential bully or a victim), cannot only assist in creating a safer campus environment, but it also creates a cohesive team of alert individuals more likely to be vigilant regarding the subject. (Ex. The Pacer Center suggests letting certain students leave class or school early to avoid harassment). Links to more strategies are found below by clicking on The Pacer Center.
4. Students with ADHD are Easy Targets for Bullying and the Risk for Students with ASD is much higher.
Some students by nature of their disability are not only more likely to be bullied but they may also be more likely to exhibit bullying behaviors. The bullying clearinghouse at StopBullying.Gov explains that students with ADHD are at increased risk for being targeted and may also be at a slightly higher risk to bully.
As a fairly successful adult with a background in special education, who has lived with attention deficit all my life, I’m careful not to overemphasize those risks but I believe it’s fair to say that some of the unconventional behaviors of some students with attention deficit may bring additional unwanted attention. On the other hand, frustration, impulsivity, and hyperactivity, may lead to other unwanted annoying or aggressive behaviors without the proper education and intervention.
Similar research of students age 8-17 also showed that students with ASD (autism spectrum disorder) are at triple the risk for being bullied.
The importance of educators and parents understanding their children as well as their differences cannot be emphasized enough and children need to be afforded the same awareness opportunities including self-awareness, self-advocacy, and self-determination. As always, knowledge is power.
5. Bullying and Disabilities = Harassment
Finally, it’s important to note the legal issues surrounding bullying of students with disabilities. When students with disabilities are bullied or threatened because they are disabled, that bullying then crosses the threshold into harassment according to the US Office of Civil Rights. Students with IEPs and 504 Plans are protected under civil rights laws including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the ADAAA (American’s with Disability Amendment Act).
The best way to prevent students from becoming bullying statistics is to know your students and their disabilities, understand the law, encourage peer intervention, and to foster positive relationships between parents and schools.
(Dr. Chester Goad is founder of The Edventurist blog, an adult living with ADD, a university administrator, writer, speaker, and disability advocate, who is committed to making life better and more fun for people with attention deficit and dyslexia. He is a licensed teacher, and former school principal. He also likes pistachios and salted caramel mochas from Starbucks. These opinions are his own, and he has a lot of them. If you’d like Dr. Goad to come and speak to your students or to your group you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org).