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Keeping Students with Disabilities Safe from Bullying

A teacher talks to her class.As Secretary Duncan has noted, the Department of Education is committed to making sure that all of our young people grow up free of fear, violence, and bullying. Bullying not only threatens a student’s physical and emotional safety at school, but fosters a climate of fear and disrespect, creating conditions that negatively impact learning—undermining students’ ability to achieve to their full potential. Unfortunately, we know that children with disabilities are disproportionately affected by bullying.

Factors such as physical vulnerability, social skills challenges, or intolerant environments may increase the risk of bullying. Students who are targets of bullying are more likely to experience lower academic achievement, higher truancy rates, feelings of alienation, poor peer relationships, loneliness, and depression. We must do everything we can to ensure that our schools are safe and positive learning  environments—where all students can learn.

To that end, on Tuesday, August 20, 2013, ED’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) issued guidance to educators and stakeholders on the matter of bullying of students with disabilities. This guidance provides an overview of school districts’ responsibilities to ensure that students with disabilities who are subject to bullying continue to receive free appropriate public education (FAPE) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Under IDEA, States and school districts are obligated to ensure that students with disabilities receive FAPE in the least restrictive environment (LRE). This guidance explains that any bullying of a student with disabilities which results in the student not receiving meaningful educational benefit is considered a denial of FAPE. Furthermore, this letter notes that certain changes to an educational program of a student with a disability (e.g., placement in a more restricted “protected” setting to avoid bullying behavior) may constitute a denial of FAPE in the LRE.

Schools have an obligation to ensure that a student with disabilities who is bullied, continues to receive FAPE as outlined in his or her individualized education program (IEP). IEPs, as well as 504 plans, can be useful in outlining specialized approaches for preventing and responding to bullying, as well as providing additional supports and services to students with disabilities. This guidance also offers effective evidence-based practices for preventing and addressing bullying.

“This guidance is a significant step forward for students facing bullying,” said Ari Ne’eman, President of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, a leading national advocacy organization. “We applaud and commend the Department for reinforcing that when a child is being bullied, it is inappropriate to ‘blame the victim’ and remove them from the general education classroom. School districts have an obligation to address the source of the problem –the stigma and prejudice that drives bullying behavior.”

Bullying of any student simply cannot be tolerated in our schools. A school where children don’t feel safe is a school where children struggle to learn. Every student deserves to thrive in a safe school and classroom free from bullying.

Please see the Dear Colleague Letter on bullying and its accompanying enclosure below or on this OSERS policy letters page.

For additional information on preventing bullying, please visit StopBullying.gov and view ED’s “It Gets Better” video.

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