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Vulnerable Targets: Students with Disabilities and Bullying
By Janet Vohs, Director of Publications
Massachusetts Parent Information & Resource Center (PIRC)

boy taunting another boyOnce considered “just part of growing up,” today bullying is seen for what it is - cruelty that can be devastating for any child. Studies have shown that children who are bullied are more likely to suffer emotional distress, such as anxiety and depression, as well as do poorly in school. Furthermore, bullying is linked to school violence.

In recognition of this growing problem, 41 states now have anti-bullying laws (www.bullypolice.org). Currently many anti-bullying bills are under consideration in the Massachusetts legislature*. These bills call for schoolwide strategies to address bullying and for school districts to formulate prevention and intervention policies and procedures for reporting and investigating bullying.

Because bullying involves an imbalance of physical or psychological power, students with disabilities are especially vulnerable and frequently targeted. For example, in the fall of 2009, responses to a Massachusetts Advocates for Children online survey asked about the extent of bullying against children on the autism spectrum. Nearly ninety percent of parents responded that their children had been bullied. These findings are applicable to most students with disabilities.

The disproportionate targeting of students with disabilities shows that, in addition to schoolwide approaches, many schools include specific strategies for dealing with bullying in the IEPs of students with disabilities. A whole-school approach to creating a safe and respectful climate for all students, combined with specific help for students most at risk, has been shown to effectively reduce bullying behavior.

All children deserve to feel safe in school. The Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center gives these suggestions (reprinted with permission) for ways parents can support their child who is being bullied:

  • Tell your child that this is not his or her fault, and that your child did nothing wrong.

  • Gently emphasize that above all, your child should not retaliate or attempt to fight or hit the bully.

  • Role-play ignoring the bully or walking away.

  • With your child, make a list of adults in school he or she can go to for help, such as counselors or administrators.

  • Arrange for him or her to see friends on the weekends, and plan fun activities with the family.

Bullying in schools should be unacceptable to students, teachers, parents and school administrators. Knowing that your child is a victim of bullying can be extremely distressing. The key to stopping bullying is to get the school’s cooperation. Since bullying is not an issue faced by just one child, it can help to join forces with other parents through the PTA or other networks to address the issue of bullying. Working with others to communicate the problem to the school will more likely result in an effective school wide response.

*To learn more about anti-bullying bills under consideration, contact the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Education: House Staff at 617-722-2070; Senate Staff at 617-722-1570. Massachusetts Advocates for Children is leading efforts to secure passage of H. 3804 (An Act Addressing Bullying of Children with ASD).

Resources and Sources

Direct from the Field: A Guide to Bullying Prevention. (2007). Parker-Roerden, L., Rudewick, D., & Gorton, D. Boston, MA: Department of Public Health. Available on-line at www.mass.gov/Eeohhs2/docs/dph/com_health/violence/bullying_prevent_guide.pdf. This guide provides tools to help school communities create school-specific bullying prevention programs. It includes information about helping children with disabilities, and provides specific suggestions for responding to a child who has been bullied.

Eyes on Bullying: What Can You Do? (2008). Storey, K. & Slaby, R. This toolkit, available at www.eyesonbullying.org, helps parents and caregivers learn effective strategies for stopping and preventing bullying.

National Center for Bullying Prevention. This Web site, at www.pacer.org/bullying, has features for elementary students and for teens, as well as resources for parents and schools.

Stop Bullying Now! This U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Web site at www.stopbullyingnow.hrsa.gov helps children understand what bullying is and how harmful it is. It features a resource kit with tips and facts, and includes an extensive database of resources about bullying prevention. The information for adults is available in English and Spanish.

“Targeted, Taunted, Tormented: the Bullying of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder.” (2009). Boston, MA: Massachusetts Advocates for Children. Download a copy at www.massadvocates.org/uploads/44/a0/44a075940bd061eef73d72ec643c2762/Bullying-Report-final-s.pdf.

“When Your Child is Being Bullied: A Guide for Parents from Massachusetts.” (2008). Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center. Bridgewater, MA: Bridgewater State College. This brochure gives parents practical suggestions about how to help their children cope with bullying and how to work with the school. Read more at http://webhost.bridgew.edu/marc/marc%20bullying.pdf.

For more information about the Massachusetts Parent Information and Resource Center (PIRC) and how we can support you in your key role as a partner with schools to help ensure your child’s success, call 1-877-471-0980 or visit www.pplace.org.