Bullying of Special Needs Students Remains Problematic


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The topic of bullying has been front-and-center this past month, including an anti-bullying conference held last week with President Barack Obama, along with First Lady Michelle Obama. The conference addressed the administration’s anti-bullying campaign and plans to hold school districts accountable if they don’t adequately protect bullied students. Then a video went viral this week featuring Casey Heynes, an Australian sixteen-year-old who turned the tables on a school bully and body slammed him into the ground.

More notably, Congresswoman Jackie Speier of California recently spoke before her colleagues about the epidemic of bullying in our schools and addressed the heartbreaking truth that children with special needs are bullied at a much higher rate than all others. Additionally, it was noted that bullying reported among those with autism and Asperger’s Syndrome was markedly higher than neurotypical children. Ms. Speier will soon be introducing legislation to address this crisis head-on, requiring schools to track incidents against children with disabilities and include content in anti-bullying programs that specifically addresses this susceptible segment of students.

While I applaud these efforts, it seems more education and awareness will be required to truly make a difference. If a school has an inclusion program, as most do, guest autism speakers should address the PTA on what it means for neurotypical and children with autism to share a classroom. This would cue parents of neurotypical children to not be fearful or resentful of a child with autism sharing a room with their child. The parents could then in turn help their children become more compassionate and supportive of their special needs classmates.

Tragically, much of the problem comes from the top, as administrators and teachers themselves don’t understand or appreciate the nature of autism, even as they are required to meet the needs of those students in their midst. Too often, the principal regards the child with autism as a “headache” and a behavior problem absorbing his or her valuable time.

As far as teachers go, my experience has been that when a teacher sets a respectful tone towards a child with autism, students will follow the lead. Sadly, the converse is also true. 

Earlier, I recommended a new DVD called “Intricate Minds” as a way of facilitating a dialogue about Asperger’s Syndrome and though I personally haven’t had the opportunity to introduce it in a needed school setting, I hope someone else will do so and share their findings.

Personally, I would advocate training about autism among adults in schools who are most likely to encounter a child with autism and also require a fixed number of training hours for all special education teachers. There is also software that some schools are using with great success that enable students to report incidents of bullying they have endured or witnessed anonymously online to a school administrator. This is a resource that should be available in every school.

We all want to provide children on the autism spectrum a bully-free and safe environment, but we cannot do that alone. Only through knowledge and awareness will we be able to counter the ignorance and fear that currently exist in our school systems.

11 Responses to Bullying of Special Needs Students Remains Problematic

  1. A school, like any other human environment, is the sum of thousands of minute interactions among children, teachers, and staff. The seemingly small act of one child bullying another, if not stopped, is inevitably repeated until it poisons the entire atmosphere. It soon breeds a chain of harms, as mommunal bonds give way to relationships ruled by distrust and fear. A school that permits a culture of bullying is sending a message that children, mot adults, are making the rules. Eventually, you get a negative culture.

    Edward F. Dragan, EdD, Education Expert, is the author of “The Bully Action Guide: How to Help Your Child and How to Get Your School to Listen.”

  2. Susan says:

    Thank you for your contribution. My son actually had a teacher who derided him and his classmates joined in, so sometimes the bully is the adult cuing the kids.

    Susan Moffitt

  3. Susan Ford Keller says:

    I applaud Congresswoman Speier for her efforts on eradicating bullying in our schools. It’s especially important to NOT bully children with developmental disabilities. This group of kids are very vulnerable to repeating behaviors like bullying, rather than processing them through and deciding not to bully. For many of these kids, they really do “live what they learn.” It’s definitely preferable to prevent learning this behavior, rather than try to extinguish it later.

  4. Susan says:

    good point

  5. Leslie says:

    Good article, and I agree, whether it be school or a public place, it is often parents/adults that set the tone towards a disabled child. My 9 year old son is severely autistic and is lucky that he has several friends and aides in school who will watch out for him.

    He was bullied and made fun of by a girl last year at a public park and when reported to her parents, they laughed and said it was fine because my son probably didn’t understand what was happening, so I can see why the young girl thought that she was superior and that her actions were acceptable. (It was tough to take the high road on that one and just walk away, but it really is the only option with ignorant people.)

  6. Susan says:

    That is really hard to take, but you would’ve been wasting your breath, seeing how you’ll probably never see them again. I’m glad your son’s okay at school!

    Susan Moffitt

  7. Dick Stone says:

    Our two daughters were bullied by their High School Dance Team coach. The worst of the bullying occurred after the Principal forwarded our emails of concern onto the coach. The coach retaliated against us by bullying our daughters. Our oldest daughter was a Special Needs student and was bullied the worst.

    We took our concerns to the Superintendent and even the Town Board of Education, but we were not taken seriously. Our complaints and concerns went unanswered as we were told the matter was a “personnel” matter and therefore could not be discussed. The bullying got worse when we hired an attorney. Having legal representation only made the school become more agitated and annoyed with us.

    Only through Freedom of Information Act requests and obtaining correspondences, including emails, of all school personnel involved did we discover the conspiracy and willful effort to deny our claims. A quote from one email written by the Superintendent to the Principal states, “If we continue to refute all allegations then we will shatter the accusations that come in from those parties who are trying to make things such a big deal. Hang in there…” We attempted to speak before the Town Board of Education and were denied to speak freely. A letter written to us by the Superintendent states, “If in the future if you plan to speak at another board meeting during public participation, please refrain from any accusations or allegations against personnel. It is against the board’s policy.” The efforts by the Town, the School and its employees involved to dismiss our claims were very strong, at times we felt powerless but it only made us stronger in other ways. Our attorney was most surprised by the schools lack of concern and unwillingness to resolve the situation.

    We have presented our case to the State Board Of Education Special Education Division over nine day’s of Hearings. The facts determined by the Hearing Officer was that there were “outrageous acts of bullying” by the coach and that the Board “failed to appropriately reprimand” the coach, “and in fact, the Board acquiesced in the bullying by demoting the Student and supporting the advisor’s outrageous behavior”.

    The Hearing Officer found that my oldest daughters Civil Rights were violated under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The school has sought to appeal this decision and we are currently awaiting trial in Federal Court. The local News channel recently covered the story and can be seen on youtube.com at, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FWvEWzzBETU

    For all those parents that find it too difficult to fight city hall, don’t give up for what you believe in. In the end, justice will prevail and the findings will benefit all of us by forcing schools to be responsible and accountable for their actions, or in our situation, lack of actions.

  8. Victoria Rosa says:

    I was bullied in 6th through 8th Grade some kid told me he was gowing to kill me think full when i got home i told my mom and dad my dad had call the cops and i had told them what the kid told me he was put in juve for what he told me. and outher’s my age where all sow being bullied like me.

  9. Susan says:

    I’m sorry that happened, but glad you told your parents and they acted.

  10. Patrick Reagan says:

    My wife and I heard a about a few incidences at our local elementary school concerning bullying aimed at special needs children. We have a 4 year old that may be attending the same school ina couple of years who has been diagnosed with autism and in non-verbal. Several instances from other families were witnessed by school workers who did nothing to stop the situation.

    I am terrified of letting my son go to public school if they don’t a safe schools experience. Can anyone give us some advice?

  11. Susan says:

    I would say to be proactive and introduce yourself to all the power players at the school before school starts. Be forthright about your concerns and ask what they are going to do to ensure your child’s safety, and what action they will take should an incidence occur. A plan should be in place before she goes to school the first day.

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