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Bullying Among Children and Youth with Disabilities and Special Needs

By: HRSA Stop Bullying Now! Campaign (2007)

Children with learning disabilities and special needs may be at increased risk of being bullied. Further, a child’s disability can make it difficult to identify the type of bullying that is occurring. It is important for both teachers and parents to take the time to clearly define and describe bullying behaviors for children with disabilities, so they can identify bullying and notify adults if they experience or witness bullying. In order to help children involved in bullying, their families, their educators, and other people involved in helping them, The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' (HHS) Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) and their partners developed the Stop Bullying Now! Campaign to raise awareness about bullying and promote effective prevention efforts in schools and communities across the country.

What Is Bullying?

Bullying is aggressive behavior that is intentional and that involves an imbalance of power or strength. Often it is repeated over time. Bullying is not the same thing as conflict. Conflict involves antagonism among two or more people. Any two people can have a conflict (or a disagreement or a fight), but bullying only occurs where there is a power imbalance. Bullying can take many forms. Direct bullying can involve hitting, kicking, shoving, spitting, taunting, teasing, racial slurs, verbal harassment, threatening, and obscene gestures. Indirect bullying can involve getting another person to bully someone for you, spreading rumors, deliberately excluding someone from a group, and cyberbullying.

The research that has been conducted on bullying among children with disabilities and special needs indicates that these children may be at particular risk of being bullied by their peers.

For example:

  • Although little research has been conducted on the relation between learning disabilities (LD) and bullying, available information indicates that children with learning disabilities are at greater risk of being teased and physically bullied.
  • Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are more likely than other children to be bullied. They also are somewhat more likely than others to bully their peers.
  • Children with medical conditions that affect their appearance (e.g., cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, spina bifida) are more likely to be victimized by peers. Frequently, these children report being called names related to their disability. Obesity also may place children at higher risk of being bullied.
  • Children with hemiplagia (paralysis to one side of their body) are more likely than other children their age to be victimized by peers, to be rated as less popular than their peers, and to have fewer friends than other children.
  • Children who have diabetes and who are dependent on insulin may be especially vulnerable to peer bullying.

As harassment is a serious issue in our nation’s schools, the Stop Bullying Now! Campaign strives to communicate that sometimes there can be debilitating results of being bullied. Children who are bullied are more likely than their peers to be depressed; anxious; have low self-esteem; suffer from headaches, stomach aches, and fatigue; be apprehensive about going to school; and think of suicide. There are steps parents can take if they think their child is being bullied.

What Is the Law for Students with Learning Disabilities and Special Needs?

Under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, bullying behavior may cross the line to become “disability harassment,” which is illegal. According to the U.S. Department of Education, disability harassment is “intimidation or abusive behavior toward a student based on disability that creates a hostile environment by interfering with or denying a student’s participation in or receipt of benefits, services, or opportunities in the institution’s program” (U.S. Department of Education, 2000). This harassment can take different forms, including verbal harassment, physical threats, or threatening written statements.

Disability harassment can occur in any location that is connected with the school: in classrooms, in the cafeteria, in hallways, on the playground, or athletic fields, or on a school bus. It also can occur during school-sponsored events (Education Law Center, 2002).

What Can Parents Do?

It is important to always be supportive of your child and listen to your child’s experiences. Be sure to tell your child that it isn’t their fault. Do not encourage your child to fight back. Write down as much information as possible about your child’s experiences and share this with your child’s teacher to see if he or she can help to quickly resolve the problem. If the bullying or harassment is severe, or if the teacher does not fix the problem quickly, contact the principal and put your concerns in writing.

Parents of children with learning disabilities and special needs can ask the school district to convene a meeting of the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team or the Section 504 team, a group convened to ensure that the school district is meeting the needs of students with disabilities. These teams are trained to listen to your concerns and needs and will provide them an opportunity to review your child’s IEP or 504 plan to ensure the school is taking steps to stop the bullying and or harassment. This also provides an opportunity for you to mention if your child needs counseling or other supportive services because of the bullying and or harassment.

Additionally, sometimes children and youth who are bullied also bully others. Parents should ask their children questions to find out if their child is bullying peers or younger children. If this is possible, the child’s IEP may need to be modified to include assistance in changing the aggressive behavior.

Take a Stand. Lend a Hand. Stop Bullying Now! Campaign Resources

Recently, the Stop Bullying Now! Campaign introduced two new resources to help prevent bullying. These materials include the Stop Bullying Now! Activities Guide and the Stop Bullying Now! DVD Video Toolkit for schools and communities.

The Stop Bullying Now! Activities Guide provides guidance and creative ideas to help make the many Campaign resources work in your school and community. Containing tips on organizing events, working with local media, and more, the Stop Bullying Now! Activities Guide is a great resource for any parent, teacher, community leader, or young person to use to prevent bullying.

The Stop Bullying Now! DVD Video Toolkit contains all of the Stop Bullying Now! video content — previously only available online — and packages it in a user-friendly DVD that can be played in any classroom or community setting with a TV and a DVD player. The disc contains material for youth and adults, including 12 animated webisodes, public service announcements and video workshops. The Video Toolkit also comes with an Instructor’s Guide that provides guidance on how to put the video content to work in a school or community.

Also available is the Stop Bullying Now! Resource Kit. The kit is comprised of tip sheets that address the needs and interests of parents, educators and administrators, health and safety professionals, and others who confront bullying everyday. The Stop Bullying Now! Resource Kit articulates the ways in which adults interacting with youth can work successfully on their own and collaboratively to respond to bullying. All Resource Kit materials are available in high-quality, printable format on the Stop Bullying Now! Campaign website. Hard copies of the Resource Kit can be obtained by calling 1-888-ASK-HRSA.

The Stop Bullying Now! Campaign’s website is the central hub for all campaign activities, and includes two full sections – one for youth and one for adults. Both sides of the website have information and materials to help visitors learn about bullying and how to effectively prevent bullying.

For more information, visit the Stop Bullying Now! Campaign website – http://stopbullyingnow.hrsa.gov.

Susan P. Limber, PhD, MLS, Professor & Associate Director, Institute on Family and Neighborhood Life, Clemson University, South Carolina wrote this article exclusively for LD OnLine at the request of the HRSA Stop Bullying Now Campaign. (2007).