A Conversation About Bullying with Attorney Judith C. Saltzman

Bullying and harassment of children with any sort of difference occurs frequently in my school, but administrators don’t recognize it.  Is there anything I can do to improve the environment for my child?

Yes.  Parents have a powerful ally in the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR).  In a Letter to Colleagues issued on October 26, 2010, OCR informed all public schools in the U.S. that bullying and harassment, including harassment of one student by another, can be a form of prohibited discrimination.  Schools that know about but fail to stop such harassment may be in violation of federal civil rights laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex, gender, and disability. The OCR letter can be found here. Under Ohio law, school districts are required to have anti-bullying policies, but merely having such a policy does not necessarily fulfill your district’s responsibility under federal law.

Get together with other parents whose children have been bullied, read the OCR letter and ask yourselves whether your school is meeting OCR’s requirements.  Read your school’s policies and consider their effectiveness.  If appropriate, share your experiences and concerns with your school board and request change.  OCR’s letter recognizes that effective prevention may require training not only for the perpetrators of harassment “but also for the larger school community, to ensure that all students, their families, and school staff can recognize harassment if it recurs and know how to respond.” Consider whether measures such as this could be effective in changing your school climate and ask your board of education for the programs, services and protections that will help your children.

How do we get help from the Office for Civil Rights?

You can file a complaint with OCR.  OCR has an on-line complaint form which you can fill out yourself.  OCR investigates such complaints, whether or not a lawyer files them for you.  You can file a complaint about what has happened with your individual child, and, if you so choose, also explain how other children have been similarly affected, i.e., how your child is representative of a group of children. Parents with similar concerns can file similar complaints.  Complaints should be filed promptly – within six months of the incident(s) you are complaining about.  Click here for instructions on filing OCR complaints.

The laws prohibiting harassment in school are:·

  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, which prohibit discrimination based upon disability;·
  • Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin; and ·
  • Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex or gender (i.e., sexual preference).

I think my child is being bullied — how can I find out the details?

If your child has been targeted, get the facts as quickly and accurately as you can.  Save all communications from the school, your child, or others which relate to the incident(s).  Make a written request for your child’s educational records. You can obtain copies of these records (possibly for a fee) if needed to enable you to effectively review them outside of school with your spouse or partner, your child’s counselors and others from whom you seek input.  If your child can’t tell you what happened, you may need to enlist professional support.  School officials, teachers, other school employees, other parents and even mature students can also be an important source of information, particularly if your child is non-verbal.

Can I ask for an IEP meeting to address harassment and bullying of my child?

Yes.   Bullying or harassment may decrease a disabled student’s ability to benefit from his or her education and deny a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).   See OCR letter issued July 25, 2000.  Hence, if your child has (or should have) an IEP (or even a Section 504 plan), you can request a meeting to address your child’s harassment.  A meeting will not only give you the opportunity to gain more information, but also, it will give you the opportunity to brainstorm with teachers about adding goals, objectives and services to your child’s IEP that will fortify your child against being bullied.  Some areas to consider include social skills training, self-advocacy skills, speech-language development, coping strategies, enhanced supervision and aide services.   An IEP meeting will also give you the opportunity to request a change of placement.  This may be the best practical solution for protecting your child in cases where other students have created a hostile environment.  It is a good idea to have a recording of this meeting or, failing this, to send a confirming letter afterwards.

How do I get the school to act fast – before my child is harmed further?

Request corrective action, in writing, from school officials.  Send a letter to all school officials in a position to protect your child, informing them of what has occurred or is occurring and asking them to advise you of the steps they are going to take to protect your child.  Be factual and complete — don’t assume they already know about the harassment.    Such letters can go (preferably by certified mail, return receipt requested) to the members of the Board of Education, the Superintendent, Principal, Assistant Principal, Guidance Counselor, Teacher, and any other school employee in a position stop the harassment of your child.  School employees who fail to take action in response to such a letter may be demonstrating “deliberate indifference,” a factor that may expose them to damage claims later under federal civil rights laws if your child is harmed.  Hence, the goal of the letter is to motivate quick, corrective action that prevents harm, or further harm, to your child.

Of course, it is also a good idea to meet with your school principal and/or superintendent, discuss the facts of your child’s harassment, and ask for the solution you want, either before or after sending the written notice described above.

The Ohio Department of Education has a complaint procedure.  Can I complain about bullying through this procedure?

Yes. Since disability harassment may decrease a disabled student’s ability to benefit from his or her education, it may cause a denial of FAPE.  In such cases, parents whose children are on IEPs can file a complaint with the Ohio Department of Education (ODE), whose complaint form can be found on the ODE website.  When a complaint is filed, ODE typically offers mediation with one of its trained mediators, a procedure that can lead to a prompt resolution.  Complaints to ODE must be filed within one year of the incident(s).

Posted in Articles, Articles: Children with Special Needs.