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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Bullying, FAPE, and the Department of Education

In new guidance sent to educators across the country, federal education officials say that schools may be liable if they don’t properly address bullying of students with disabilities.
The guidance issued Tuesday in a four-page “Dear Colleague” letter details the unique obligations that schools have under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to ensure that children with disabilities are not victimized.
Specifically, officials from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services said that bullying can lead to a denial of a student’s right to a free and appropriate public education, or FAPE, if it “results in the student not receiving meaningful educational benefit.

Several studies in recent years have suggested that children with disabilities more frequently encounter bullying. Findings released in 2012 from a nationwide poll indicated that 63 percent of kids with autism have been bullied. Another study published the same year found that about half of adolescents with autism, intellectual disability, speech impairments and learning disabilities were bullied at school..
Education Week reports:
The letter points to research on bullying and students with disabilities, including a 2012 paper in the Journal of School Psychology which found that students with observable disabilities and behavior disabilities reported being bullied more often than their typically-developing peers.
The department also cited a 2010 study in the Journal of Developmental Behavioral Pediatrics that surveyed 221 youth with varying disabilities and compared their experiences to 73 typically developing children. In addition to being at higher risk of bullying, that study noted that students with disabilities were also at risk of being ostracized from their peers.
To that point, the guidance letter also says that schools cannot unilaterally decide to try to fix a bullying problem by moving a student with disabilities to a more-restrictive "protective" environment, or by changing a student's special education services. That decision must be made by an IEP team and give an opportunity for parents to weigh in, the letter said.
Ari Ne'eman, the president of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, supported that reminder. In a statement, he said that the department deserves credit "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."