Loud and Clear: A Special Needs Conversation

Bullying and Kids with Disabilities

By Judith L. Smith, Esq.

Bullying in its many forms is a serious, all-too-common problem, and social media has moved this abuse online. The bullying may involve insults, threats or physical violence, with results that range from damaged self-esteem to poor academic performance to bodily injury.

Children with special needs are more frequently targeted by bullying, less able to deal with it and more likely to suffer permanent harm. Since they often have difficulty with social skills, they may misinterpret a bully’s intentions. And since they frequently yearn for acceptance, they may avoid telling teachers and parents about incidents for fear of becoming even more isolated.

If a child becomes anxious, depressed or avoids social situations they previously enjoyed, it’s time to investigate. If they appear angry or upset when using a smartphone or computer, cyberbullying could be the cause. Watch for a sudden increase or decrease in their use of such devices or a tendency to hide their screen from others.

Federal Law

While there are many steps that parents and schools can take in order to prevent or stop bullying, families should be aware that they also have powerful legal resources at their disposal.

Students with disabilities are guaranteed a “free and appropriate education” under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA). So if bullying creates an environment that interferes with their learning and the school district is aware of the situation, but takes no action, the law is on the family’s side. In addition, both Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) protect the civil rights of individuals with disabilities. Many states have anti-bullying laws, as well.


Certain forms of cyberbullying are against the law and local authorities should be informed if it involves:

  • violent threats,
  • child pornography or other sexually explicit content,
  • photography or videos that are an invasion of privacy, or
  • stalking and hate crimes.

Some states consider additional forms of cyberbullying to be criminal, and parents should consult state law.

Do not respond to or forward cyberbullying content and block the perpetrator from your child’s online accounts. Report the individual to internet and cell phone service providers and social media platforms, since such behavior is likely prohibited by their terms of use.

What Parents Can Do

If you suspect that your child is being bullied, talk to them about what’s been going on. Find out how and when the bullying began and who is involved. Then immediately contact their teachers and school administrators. Give your child emotional support and determine if they could benefit from counseling. Document all episodes in writing. If cyberbullying is involved, print screen shots, emails and texts, and keep track of dates, times and other details regarding when the incidents occurred.

Insist that there be a point person to whom your child can report any future incidents. If you’re concerned about potential retaliation against your child, request increased supervision. School authorities should reassure your child that the incidents aren’t their fault and that it’s their right to feel safe. Monitor the school’s response, and if you’re not satisfied with the school’s response, continue following up.

Request an IEP (Individualized Education Program) meeting. Social and self-advocacy skills can be even more important than academic performance. Speech therapy and learning conversational norms could help your child avoid taunting. It may be useful to include the child’s psychologist and other members of their private support team in the IEP meetings. Consider involving a special education attorney if you’re not making progress.

What Schools Should Do

Schools are expected to take proactive steps to avoid bullying, including:

  • a zero-tolerance policy in their code of conduct and conduct;
  • mandatory training for both staff and students;
  • a defined process for handling bullying incidents; and
  • school-based counseling for both bullying victims and perpetrators.

Teachers should closely supervise students and quickly address bullying incidents. Schools should educate students about diversity and build inclusive cultures. They should consider creating peer support groups, since research indicates that over half of all bullying situations cease once another student intervenes.

Bullying can cause lasting damage, but a multi-pronged approach can avoid or stop it. Parents and schools must give students with disabilities the support and tools they need in order to have fulfilling educational and social experiences.

Posted: January 28th, 2019 | 7 Comments »

7 responses to “Bullying and Kids with Disabilities”

  1. kimberly Rose gubitosi says:

    what if the special needs child and their family is being bullied by the school system who refuses to acknowledge that these special children cannot speak for themselves; so there needs to be more attention to people they hire and they need a honest board that will hold transportation accountable for the atrocities committed by staff and students; not have the parent bullied into removing the child bc they wont do anything about school resource officers down playing events and doing investigations that only wind up closed bc special needs arent going to admit to wrong doing or allowing wrongdoing to be done. my son has learned over 3 years and several instances that the officers in school will do nothing to stop it.

  2. Millie Hue says:

    I like that you pointed out that the school authorities must assure the child that the incident is not their fault. I will share this tip with my sister now that their son got bullied in the new school he is in due to having social issues and stuttering. They might even hire a lawyer to help them out and resolve this issue since the parents of the bullies are not cooperating.

  3. Javon Tharp says:

    What to do when your 11yr old with adhd and autism spectrum disorder gets agitated by teacher while in crisis and they have a spitting match then a real fight that leaves a mark on my child’s face. This teacher chose to argue with my child and tell her things like I am glad you are not my child I wouldn’t want a daughter like you, and if you spit on me I will spit on you back. Instead of walking away the teacher to my child if you hit me I am going to hit you back.The teacher is not Part of my child’s IEP and had no reason to approach her because her crisis was being handled by a crisis stabilizer that I provide and the special Ed teacher. The District Attorney says it’s not enough evidence to charge the teacher but they have pictures and statements but no video. I can’t even get the teacher moved to a different school she is 50 and should not hit a 11 year old especially when she was not to be around my child and it’s not the first unpleasant situation with each other but my child is getting the short end of the stick because this is the teachers first offense and my child has disabilities. The school board keeps giving me the run around on who to talk to. This teacher has told my daughter to shut up several times and even had a class room of children step over my child while she was on the floor instead of moving them safely around. This teacher also had a fight over the light switch with my daughter and she didn’t need to she is aggressive when approaching my child and the only option I was given was to pull all of my children out of their school.

  4. Summer Thomas says:

    Is this cover children who are going through the evaluations and testing to determine the diagnosis?

  5. Lynn Mullaney says:

    My daughter who is Autistic had a meltdown at school and the teachers tackled her and restrained her to the floor putting bruises on her leg, she was improperly restrain, also she was put into a quiet closet for timeout and she hurt herself with cuts and scratches on her arm, the closet was not a safe room, it was full of holes and the door was all splintered up, Would any of this be considered abuse? Also one day her teacher found my daughter crying in another room because it was her decease biological father BD , so the teacher told her she did not need to be grieving over a man she never knew! Is this considered bullying from the teacher?

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