Growing up can be a challenge even under the best of circumstances. But when you are the parent of a child with a disability bullied because he or she is different, the ability to cope and resolve this type of situation can be upsetting. While there is no single or easy solution, there are several steps you can take to make things better for your child in the short- and long-term.
First, you need to know that according to the letter of the law, when bullying is directed at a child because of his or her disability at school, this can constitute a hostile environment and can be construed as disability harassment. Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, the school must take steps to address and correct the harassment, or they will be in violation of one or more civil rights laws enforced by the Department of Education and the Department of Justice.
Here are some steps to follow if you suspect your special needs child is being bullied at school:
1. Stay calm and talk to your child
If you find out your special needs child is being bullied, resist your initial urge to become angry, lash out and seek immediate and harsh punishment against the guilty parties. While this may be a short-term solution that will fulfill your desire to protect your child, it could close doors and make it more difficult to find a permanent solution.
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Instead, you should support your child by talking to him/her. Get as much information as possible about what has happened and be sensitive to any signs of bullying. Many times, a special needs child may not even be aware or realize they are being bullied. Follow up by reassuring the child that he/she is not at fault. Do not encourage the child to fight back, since this will only escalate matters.
2. Begin a dialogue with the school
As soon as you suspect your child may be a victim of bullying, immediately contact your child’s teacher to get additional details about what he or she sees, and to help resolve the problem. Many times, this will be enough to correct the situation.
However, if bullying extends beyond the classroom, or if the teacher does not respond appropriately, put your concerns in writing to the school’s principal. At this point, you may also want to copy district officials as well. Make sure also to start keeping records of all conversations and written communications from this point forward.
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Unless you know the other child’s parents well, it is probably best to not contact them on your own. Instead, let the school mediate the situation on your behalf. Just as you may tend to become emotional on your child’s behalf, so too will other parents come to their own children’s defense.
3. Get additional help
If you do not get the support you need, or the school does not take reasonable or appropriate steps to end the bullying of your special needs child, they may be violating federal, state and local laws. You can contact a civil rights attorney, or you have the option of contacting the following agencies to get additional help:
The U.S. Office of Education, Office for Civil Rights (800) 421-3481
The U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs (202) 245-7468
The U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division 1-877-292-3804
This is article was featured in Issue 73 – Amazing Ways To Support Autism