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Yes! Bullying Can Be Addressed through the IEP

Today’s headlines are filled with news about bullying in schools. The latest phenomenon, called “bullicide,” happens when kids who are being bullied commit suicide. Let’s face it, bullying can be pretty scary and should concern most any parent who has a child attending school. But it is especially worrisome for parents who have children with disabilities because research shows that children with disabilities are more likely to be targeted. This is especially so for kids with developmental disabilities like autism because they are less likely to be able to navigate their way around social situations by the very nature of their disability.

As professionals who represent children with special needs, we help parents obtain appropriate special education services for their children with disabilities. Both of us have a particular interest in the rights of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Julie is not only a special education advocate whose practice is largely devoted to this disability, she is also the parent of a 14-year-old child with autism. Jennifer has dedicated her law practice entirely to the representation of children and adolescents with disabilities whose families are in disagreement with their public school districts, and the majority of her client base is comprised of families whose children have ASD. Almost every family we work with that has a child with ASD reports that its child has been affected by bullying. Unfortunately, we both work with parents who tell us that their school team tells them that bullying can’t be addressed through the special education Individualized Education Program (IEP).

We are here to say it most certainly can! Here are a few practical tips as you tackle the problem:

1. Ask for your school district’s bullying policy and procedures.

2. Screen your child at home. Talk to him or her and explore what’s happening at school and with peers. Set up a data collection system at home that tracks any changes in behavior.

3. Screen your child at school. Have a team meeting with your child’s special education team (e.g., the special ed teacher, regular ed teacher, case manager, social worker, guidance counselor, school psychologist, speech pathologist, and principal) and make them aware of the situation. Ask the school team to monitor your child over a period of time and set up a data collection system among the team members to track any changes. Make sure that monitoring takes place across all structured and non-structured school settings (e.g., the classroom, hallways, lunchroom, bathroom, school bus, and at recess).

4. Document the issue and request that the documentation be placed in your child’s educational file.

5. Determine if what is happening is a reportable offense in accordance with school policies.

6. Put a (written) plan in place with the school team.

7. Recognize the difference between a schoolwide approach to bullying and a child-centered approach. Schoolwide approaches include getting other kids involved in resolving the bullying issue like pairing the student with ASD with a peer buddy. A child-centered approach involves the child with ASD gaining a skill or learning to change his or her own behavior, like recognizing a bully or having a bank of responses to say to a bully.

8. Consider what is making your child vulnerable to being bullied. If you don’t identify the specific problem your child is having, then it is more difficult to address it and help remedy it through the IEP. For example, is it your child’s inability to read/recognize social cues (e.g., shunning, teasing, gesturing, etc.), inability to respond effectively (lack of a strategy bank), or inability to self-advocate? Once you’ve identified these types of issues, you can argue that these social skill deficits should be addressed as social skill goals and objectives in the IEP.

9. Develop a plan targeting your child’s level of ability. Set up a buddy system in unstructured settings (schoolwide). Develop incentives for other kids to participate as buddies (schoolwide). Develop classroom lessons to raise awareness of bullying, that explain that bullying will be taken seriously, and that emphasize that there will be consequences when students bully (schoolwide).

10. Develop IEP goals to address each individual social skill deficit (student-centered). Develop IEP goals to address each individual pragmatic-language deficit (student-centered.)

11. From a legal perspective, one of the most difficult challenges in addressing bullying in our public schools is that, while many states do have laws on the books regarding bullying, they generally do not include what is called a “private right of action.” In English, and summarizing a very complicated legal premise, this means that while the law exists, there is no right to sue someone who violates it under that specific statute. Therefore, parents whose children are being routinely tormented at school and who are faced with an administration that elects not to properly address the situation are left to utilize other state or federal laws if they want to find justice in our courts.

Therefore, when parents are considering what rights their child has if their child with autism is being bullied, first and foremost, they should ask themselves whether changes need to be made in the IEP. Be prepared to hear your IEP team grumble that bullying is “not a special education issue,” when indeed it is. If a student’s disabilities are causing them to exhibit behaviors that are making them particularly vulnerable to harassment by their peers, or failing to understand appropriate social interaction in the “mainstream” (as is often the case with ASD), then absolutely this needs to be addressed in the student’s special education program.

Without appropriate special education support and instruction for students with disabilities within our public school settings, we are setting our kids with autism up for being targeted, humiliated, and excluded within the regular education environment; this is in direct contravention of one of the key purposes of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which is to include children with disabilities in the public schools. What is happening as a result of our failure to adequately scaffold special education programs and instruction for students whose ASD places them at even greater risk for bullying is that we are returning to the days of segregation of children with disabilities, as a matter of fact, if not as a matter of law.

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