Parents increasingly recognize the dangers of bullying. One nationwide survey finds that 30 percent of parents with kids ages 12-17 fear bullying more than kidnapping! Children with disabilities are even more at risk. Another study finds that those with autism are three times more likely than neurotypical children to become victims.
Kids with disabilities often struggle with social skills, feel isolated and wish desperately to be accepted. They may not fully understand the intentions of bullying behavior or, if they do, they may fear being further ostracized if they complain to parents and teachers. Bullying exacts a great toll on all children — physical harm, damaged self-esteem, diminished academic achievement, impaired mental or physical health, suicidal thoughts — but for children with disabilities, the consequences can be especially severe.
What Should a Parent Do?
Parents sometimes fail to avail themselves of the legal and policy options in place to protect students with disabilities from bullying. They may feel that they must pick their battles or that they will be labeled — and ignored — as complainers. They may feel that it’s challenge enough to negotiate IEPs that adequately address academic achievement. But harassment can interfere with a child’s studies, and for kids with disabilities, learning to navigate their social environment may actually be more important than traditional school subjects.
If your child faces bullying, you should promptly notify the school in writing, requesting corrective action. The school has legal obligations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and other legislation to protect students with disabilities from hostile environments that interfere with their right to a free, appropriate public education. (Read “A Conversation about Bullying” for more detail on legal implications.)
Ask for an IEP meeting, since there are many ways in which your child’s personal education plan can be structured to address bullying. Remember that “appropriate” education for a child with disabilities means potentially focusing on all the skills necessary for post-high school success. Development of self-advocacy skills to help children maneuver in stressful social situations would be one appropriate goal. Learning what constitutes inappropriate sexual behavior can protect them from both physical abuse and from cruel emotional setups. Speech therapy and the understanding of conversational norms can help them avoid taunts.
Hopefully, you’ve built a good relationship with your child’s school, and the staff will prove responsive. It’s always helpful to bring members of your child’s private support team—reading specialist, educational psychologist, speech therapist—along to the IEP meeting in order to support and explain your requests. If all else fails, consider bringing a lawyer.
Bullies learn their behavior from adult and societal models. We have only to turn on the television to see that the problem of bullying is not restricted to school. Schools may feel, with some justification, that they are combatting a rising tide of intolerance. You can support your school — and your child — by teaching respect for differences at home and working for strong anti-bullying policies at school. Never underestimate the importance of this task.