Disability and Bullying in Schools

  • By:Ron Payne
Ed. Note: This article was authored by Kimberly J. Byrd, Esq., who is a former partner of Payne Law, PLLC and mother of four wonderful children. She can be reached at kbyrd.jdwfu2013@gmail.com

Disability harassment commonly occurs at school and results in harmful and severe effects. “Anyone who spent childhood in a public school in which special education students attend with other students knows that the children who are different are subjected to verbal abuse and physical intimidation every day.” Disability Harassment.

[box] Discrimination in the form of harassment “reinforces hierarchies of prestige and peer acceptance within the school setting. School children with disabilities are significantly lower in social prestige than other students. If a harasser can verbally tease or physically intimidate a child with impunity, it reinforces a sense of power and diminishes both the perceived and real power of the child who is harassed . . . . disability harassment constantly reinforces the message that the child with disabilities does not belong and that nothing he or she does can change that reality. Unfortunately, the negative attitudes that the children encounter at school are likely to follow them the rest of their lives, harming them in the workplace and other settings. In these settings as well, they will suffer harassment from peers and supervisors because of mental and physical differences.” Disability Harassment.  [/box]


Children with learning disabilities and other special needs are bullied at nearly twice the rate of mainstream students. Problem of School Bullies. These students “are particularly vulnerable to experiences of aggression, since they are perceived as di?erent, and usually have fewer supportive friendly relationships, in addition to their potential cognitive, emotional, or social limitations.” Bullying and Victimization Experiences. Students with learning disabilities are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of being a victim of bullying as such students have been shown to experience a “wide range of psychosocial difficulties.” Learning Disabilities and Bullying. Research consistently shows that children with learning disabilities “are more likely to be rejected . . . and neglected by peers.” Learning Disabilities and Bullying. Where students suffer from both a learning disability and peer victimization, this combination “may have separate and additive effects, substantially heightening these children’s chance of experiencing social and emotional problems.” Learning Disabilities and Bullying. Research on bullying indicates that when a child with learning disabilities becomes a victim of bullying, intervention on behalf of the child is necessary and should involve a coordinated effort between the child’s school, home, and community. Learning Disabilities and Bullying.


It is the stated public policy of the state of North Carolina to “provide full educational opportunity to all children with disabilities who reside in the State.” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 115C-106.1. The N.C. General Assembly has stated that “the practice of discrimination based upon a disabling condition is contrary to the public interest and to the principles of freedom and equality of opportunity; the practice of discrimination on the basis of a disabling condition threatens the rights and proper privileges of the inhabitants of this State; and such discrimination results in a failure to realize the productive capacity of individuals to their fullest extent.” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 168A-2(b) Further, the General Assembly has stated that “[t]he State shall encourage and enable persons with disabilities to participate fully in the social and economic life of the State and to engage in remunerative employment.” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 168-1


Under N.C. law, “bullying or harassing behavior” is defined as “any pattern of gestures or written, electronic, or verbal communications, or any physical act or any threatening communication, that takes place on school property, at any school-sponsored function, or on a school bus, and that: (1) Places a student or school employee in actual and reasonable fear of harm to his or her person or damage to his or her property; or (2) Creates or is certain to create a hostile environment by substantially interfering with or impairing a student’s educational performance, opportunities, or benefits.” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 115C-407.15(a) A “”hostile environment” means that the victim subjectively views the conduct as bullying or harassing behavior and the conduct is objectively severe or pervasive enough that a reasonable person would agree that it is bullying or harassing behavior. . . .[which] includes, but is not limited to, acts reasonably perceived as being motivated by any actual or perceived differentiating characteristic, such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, socioeconomic status, academic status, gender identity, physical appearance, sexual orientation, or mental, physical, developmental, or sensory disability, or by association with a person who has or is perceived to have one or more of these characteristics.” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 115C-407.15(a) The legislature has imposed a duty on all schools to “develop and implement methods and strategies for promoting school environments that are free of bullying or harassing behavior.” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 115C-407.17.

 10659238_10152299208332407_5258581458591544762_n Disability and Bullying in Schools

Bullying impacts all areas of a victim’s life. Learning Disabilities and Bullying. Victims of bullying are at increased risk “for social, emotional, and psychiatric problems, which may persist into adulthood.” Learning Disabilities and Bullying. Victims report “feeling afraid in school, reacting negatively toward school,” and avoiding school. Learning Disabilities and Bullying.  Effects of bullying on the victim can include decreased motivation and deterioration in grades. Learning Disabilities and Bullying. They tend to “feel more anxious, socially anxious, depressed, lonely, and worse about themselves than do nonvictims.” Learning Disabilities and Bullying.


Research indicates victims of bullying display lower self-esteem, higher rates of depression, suicidal ideation, parasuicidal thoughts and behaviors, loneliness, and anxiety, whether they actively respond to incidents of bullying or not. Adult Survivors of Adolescent Bullying. Passive victims of bullying, who are generally non-assertive and insecure, withdraw or cry when attacked by other students and, as a result, are at increased risk for being victimized because bullies recognize that “these students will not retaliate.” Problem of School Bullies.


Further, “victims of bullying tended to be victimized repeatedly over time, and ultimately have been established consistently in a victim role. As such, being bullied creates a cycle.” Adult Survivors of Adolescent Bullying. Bullying behaviors are not influenced solely by the bully or victim involved, but are “created and maintained by a reciprocal interaction between the individual, peer group, school, community, and culture.” Adult Survivors of Adolescent Bullying. Significant differences were found by researchers regarding the level of bullying experienced by students with disabilities in different schools, which were likely related “to school climate or policies and procedures regarding bullying within the school. Based on these findings, schools must be proactive in addressing bullying and establish a climate that is not conducive to the victimization of students, especially those that may be at greater risk” Bullying and Victimization.


[box] “School climate is the sum of many specific elements, which, cited in the literature, include place, policies, programs, processes, partners; and attitudes, interactions, cohesiveness, trust, respect, control, violence, physical infrastructure. School climate is of central concern to experts in school discipline, educational equity, and bullying prevention. Effective bullying prevention programs are designed to create positive change in the social climate of a school from one conductive to bullying to one where bullying is seen as unacceptable and unjust. Policies, violence, respect, equity concerns, and bullying experiences are school climate elements particularly relevant to harassment and hostile environment.” Nature, Scope, and Utility. [/box]


“School personnel play a key role in creating a positive or negative school climate.” A Social-Ecological Model. Research demonstrates that bullying behavior is related to school characteristics such as size, urbanicity, teacher quality, disciplinary practices, and percentages of ethnic minority students, and is positively correlated to school climate. Schools where students “do not feel accepted, supported, respected, and treated fairly” demonstrate increased rates of bullying behavior among students. Bullying in Schools. In schools where teachers tolerate bullying, researchers have found that bullying behaviors increased. A Social-Ecological Model. “When students observe a lack of awareness and responsiveness on the part of teachers, they may feel hopeless and believe that effective solutions are impossible.” A Social-Ecological Model.


If harassment continues, the victim’s options in response become more limited over time. Learning Disabilities and Bullying.  “When bullying is ignored or downplayed, students suffer ongoing torment and harassment. It can cause lifelong damage to both victims and those who bully. A school’s failure to deal with bullying endangers the safety of all its students by allowing a hostile environment to interfere with learning. There is evidence that school interventions can dramatically reduce the incidence of bullying.” Problem of School Bullies. Effective bullying prevention and intervention programs have been developed that focus on the individual students with the aims of reducing the bully’s aggressive behavior and increasing the social, emotional, and coping skills of the victim. These programs typically include such features as “the traditional disciplinary approach, the use of assertiveness training for victims, mediation between bullies and victims, restorative practices, the Support Group Method, and the Method of Shared Concern.” Bullying and Victimization Experiences.


“[B]ystanders play a crucial role in the bullying dynamic . . . [and] evaluation research has demonstrated that schoolwide strategies at multiple levels are required to promote nonaggressive interpersonal norms and behaviors throughout the school community, usually referred to as climate or systemic change.” Nature, Scope, and Utility. Research is nearly unanimous in demonstrating that every incident of bullying should be both reported and investigated. Nature, Scope, and Utility. The determination of whether an environment is hostile requires consideration of such factors as the “degree to which the conduct affected one or more students’ education. . . . The type, frequency, and duration of the conduct. . . . The number of individuals involved. . . . The size of the school, location of the incidents, and context in which they occurred. . . . [and] Other incidents at the school. . . .” Nature, Scope, and Utility. In considering other incidents at the school as a factor, the Office of Civil Rights recognizes that “a hostile environment can result from a sum total of incidents, not all of which are directed at [a particular student.] A series of incidents at the school, not involving the same students, could – taken together – create a hostile environment.” Nature, Scope, and Utility.

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