Bullying – When Special Needs Students Are the Victims or Instigators

By Arizona Education Attorneys        


What is Bullying?  Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both students who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting problemsIn order to be considered bullying, the behavior must be aggressive and include an imbalance of power repeatedly.  Students who bully use their power—such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity—to control or harm others.  Power imbalances can change over time and in different situations, even if they involve the same people.  Bullying behaviors happen more than once or have the potential to happen more than once.  Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose.

Types of Bullying:  There are three types of bullying.  One type is verbal bullying.  Verbal bullying is saying or writing mean things.  Verbal bullying includes teasing, name-calling, inappropriate sexual comments, taunting, and threatening to cause harm.  A second type of bullying is social bullying.  Social bullying is sometimes referred to as relational bullying.  It involves hurting someone’s reputation or relationships.  Social bullying includes intentionally excluding someone, telling other children not to be friends with someone, spreading rumors about someone and embarrassing someone in public. The third type of bullying is physical bullying.  Physical bullying involves hurting a person’s body or possessions.  Physical bullying includes hitting, kicking, pinching, spitting, tripping, pushing, taking or breaking someone’s things, and making mean or rude hand gestures.

Where and when does bullying take place?  Bullying can occur during or after school hours. While most reported bullying happens in the school building, a significant percentage also happens in places like on the playground or the bus.  It can also happen travelling to or from school, in the youth’s neighborhood, or on the internet (cyberbullying).

What is Cyberbullying?  Cyberbullying is bullying that takes place using electronic technology.  Electronic technology includes devices and equipment such as cell phones, computers, and tablets as well as communication tools including social media sites, text messages, chat, and websites.  Examples of cyberbullying include mean text messages or emails, rumors sent by email or posted on social networking sites, and embarrassing pictures, videos, websites, or fake profiles.  Students who are being cyberbullied are often bullied in person as well. Additionally, students who are cyberbullied have a harder time getting away from the behavior.  Cyberbullying can happen 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and reach a student even when he or she is alone.  It can happen any time of the day or night.  Cyberbullying messages and images can be posted anonymously and distributed quickly to a very wide audience. It can be difficult and sometimes impossible to trace the source.  Deleting inappropriate or harassing messages, texts, and pictures is extremely difficult after they have been posted or sent.  Whether done in person or through technology, the effects of bullying are similar.

Bullying of students with disabilities can amount to a denial of a FAPE as it creates a hostile learning environment such that may interfere with the student’s ability to access the curriculum.  For instance, they may not want to go to school, or they may be distracted by thoughts of the bully.

The U.S. Department of Education policy guidance states that “disability harassment that adversely affects an elementary or secondary student’s education may also amount to a denial of FAPE under the IDEA.  Harassment of a student based on disability may decrease the student’s ability to benefit from his or her education and amount to a denial of FAPE.”  Dear Colleague Letter regarding Disability Harassment, 7/25/2000.

There are a growing number of cases and court decisions concerning bullying and finding that peer-on-peer bullying – and bullying by the student’s teacher – can result in a denial of FAPE in violation of the IDEA and/or 504: