Jun 02

Educate staff on laws, practices to prevent cyberbullying of students with disabilities

Note: This article was originally published on SpecialEdConnection.com and was reprinted with the permission of LRP Publications. 

Harassment. Abuse. Taunting. Menacing. These are the kinds of words that appear in laws that address bullying, said Paul O’Neill, a school attorney at Barton Gilman LLP in New York City.

In many cases, students with disabilities may be more trusting and less likely to realize they’re being mocked. “Especially kids with cognitive issues. They may not realize they are being mocked, menaced, or hazed,” he said. “It raises an additional level of concern.”

Indeed, when students with disabilities are victims of bullying or harassment, that can constitute a denial of FAPE. “Whether or not the bullying is related to the student’s disability, any bullying of a student with a disability that results in the student not receiving meaningful educational benefit constitutes a denial of FAPE under the IDEA that must be remedied,” the U.S. Education Department stated in the Dear Colleague Letter reported at 61 IDELR 263 (OSERS/OSEP 2013).

See the following for more information about state and federal laws around bullying of students with disabilities.

  •  Know state law. “Federal law is pretty uniform across the board,” O’Neill said. “State law is not. You really have to know the environment you’re in.” Pennsylvania, for example, has fairly robust cyberbullying policies required by statute, said Patricia Hennessy, O’Neill’s colleague at Barton Gilman. Students can also anonymously report any bullying happening, she said.

    On the other hand, New York has the Dignity for All Students Act, O’Neill said. Districts can refer to The Cyberbullying Research Center’s website, which has a map that shows the current rules in all the states, he said.

    In terms of disciplinary action, some states require districts to impose consequences when they determine instances of cyberbullying, he said. “Over the last few years, a lot of states have bolstered their laws cracking down on cyberbullying. It’s important for IEP teams to be aware, and make sure the legal issues are being addressed.”

  • Consider invoking federal law. When IEP teams see evidence of bullying occurring, they need to make sure the legal issues are being addressed, O’Neill said. The Office for Civil Rights would consider bullying against students with disabilities to trigger a protected class.

    “That’s something to keep in mind when we talk about bullying in general, cyberbullying in particular,” he said. “It’s not just a state issue. Look to state law but have the option of invoking federal law. Making a call to OCR is often a way to trigger scrutiny for practices like this. It’s something that [IEP teams] should keep in mind.”

    “While we’re talking about a protected class, the school administration would have to address [the cyberbullying] one way or another,” Hennessy said.

  • Train staff. Get out in front of cyberbullying to make sure people understand the issues in general and the extraordinary harm that can come to vulnerable students, O’Neill said. Making everyone aware of cyberbullying can go a long way in preventing it.

    Master best practices for handling and preventing these kinds of harassing behaviors, and make sure it becomes part of the culture of the school, he said. “Be preventative, supportive, and responsive,” he said. “Leaving it alone and hoping for the best is the wrong approach. Institutional laziness is the enemy here.”

Florence Simmons covers Section 504, paraprofessionals, and transportation for LRP Publications.

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