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Steps for Preventing and Protecting Special Needs Students from Bullying

There’s perhaps no group of students more susceptible to bullying from other students than those who have special needs. It’s an unfortunate truth that children can be incredibly cruel to those who are different from them and students with physical and mental differences are often common targets of the school bully.

"Due to their unique abilities, they often are the targets of bullying,” Kim Buchman who works with the developmentally disabled in Quincy, Illinois, said. “Sometimes they have struggles distinguishing when they are being bullied and who's a true friend."

Students who are bullied often develop negative feelings towards school and have higher rates of anxiety and depression. The negative effects of bullying can be compounded for special needs students.

Children who have special needs may be less likely to speak out and tell an authority figure about the bullying out of fear, leading to a continuation of the torment. Other times the issue may not be properly addressed by school authorities.

The Philadelphia School District recently came under fire with advocates represented by the Education Law Center-PA filing a complaint, alleging that schools across the city downplayed or ignored pervasive bullying of special education students. One mother said her 9-year-old child who has been tormented by bullies because of autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder now panics and vomits at the idea of returning for a new school year. Attorneys representing the plaintiffs are asking that the school district make revisions to the district’s bullying policy and allow administrative transfers for the bullying victims.

It’s the duty of schools to ensure that preventative steps be taken to prevent the bullying of special needs students and that those who are bullied have the issue properly addressed and continue to receive free appropriate public education (FAPE).

Like all bullying incidents, one of the most critical factors in preventing its continuation is the action of bystanders speaking up. By educating students on the importance of peer advocacy, speaking up and notifying an adult when they see bullying taking place, it both protects the student and empowers the student body as a whole. When a student witnesses bullying and condemns it, the action has a much more powerful effect at stamping out the bad behavior than an adult just handing down a stern lecture. It’s also much more likely that when bullying takes place it will be the child’s fellow students who are around to witness it, rather than an adult. “Kids are present during nine-out-of-every-ten incidents of bullying, but intervene on behalf of others less than 20 percent of the time,” Signe Whitson, a school counselor who writes about the topic for Psychology Today, said.

One of the most critical steps to preventing such bullying is teaching children about disabilities early, say educators.

As part of Austin, Texas’ “Kids First” program, second-graders at Reagan Elementary try their hand at using a mirror to trace letters and numbers upside down to understand what it’s like to have dyslexia. Students also stuff marshmallows in their mouth and try to speak in clear sentences, to help them learn empathy skills for their peers who might have a speech disability.

While the school program was only available for second-graders in the 2016-2017 school year, there are plans to expand it to other grades.


Article by Joel Stice, Education World Contributor

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