Bullying Prevention

Bullying and Students with Disabilities: The Ugly, the Bad, and the Good

September 28, 2015         Updated September 27, 2015

Girl in wheelchair
October is National Bullying Prevention Month, and it is important to discuss how educators can create classrooms of tolerance and empathy, fully inclusive of the students with disabilities. In the spirit of the good, the bad, and the ugly, let’s discuss the laws around bullying, the potential civil rights violations, and the legal risks involved with bullying students with documented disabilities. Then we'll move onto preventative measures and how we can create an inclusive and self-governing classroom in which students set the tone for kindness and inclusion. 

The Bad and the Ugly 

Unlike some forms of bullying, bullying students with a documented disability can result in enormous legal consequences and financial liability for the school district involved. It is important to remember that bullying and harassing a student in a “protected class”, such as race, national original, religion, sex, and disability, is not only detrimental but a violation of the student’s civil rights. There are several laws in place to protect students with disabilities and as the protector of these students, please do your homework and comply.  

I have worked and consulted on several egregious cases in local school districts.  In most of the cases, a well-intentioned teacher became overwhelmed and let it affect his/her judgment.  If you feel this overwhelm coming on, call an administrator or make a deal with a colleague, don’t let stress turn into unintentional bullying. 

The Good (and the How to Incorporate It)

My hope is that the following tips will allow you to create a climate of tolerance and inclusion and to minimize stress so that the onus of preventing bullying doesn’t fall on you and you alone. 

1. Stop the Harrumph

I know that IEPs can be a pain. Even as a life-long advocate for those with disabilities, I know that accommodating several students with an IEP can be burdensome and create all sorts of extra work for you. 

Students are wonderfully perceptive. Students with disabilities grow up with the idea that they are always a “problem” or a total inconvenience. In fact, I often work with university students unwilling to ask for accommodation because of one bad experience or one teacher expressing their unwillingness or reluctance to accommodate. Allow the IEP to serve as a guide on how to specifically accommodate one student and generally accommodate all students. 

2. Teach Self-Advocacy

It is imperative that each student knows how to advocate for his or her selves. This will allow students to feel empowered in their difference, to stand up to bullying, and to feel more self-aware and secure if they happen to be bullied.  Teach all students about their rights, both in the classroom and in their community, and allow students the opportunity to challenge you when their classroom rights feel violated. 

Why would you want this challenge? Because if students are comfortable confronting you, they will be comfortable confronting a potential bully.

3. Create a Culture of Respect and Tolerance

Many articles on Edutopia speak of how teachers can create this culture in the classroom, however a favorite practice to prevent bullying is to allow students to set the normatives and the Constitution of the classroom and set up mechanisms for enforcement. 

4. Share Your Experiences

Talk about you own experiences with difference, its direct relationship with bullying, and who made the difference in your life. As a teacher and occasional speaker, I talk of my own difference, that I am a woman with a disability, the invisible disability of lupus. I speak about how I have had experienced stigmatization in my academic journey and the importance of having a voice and allies. 

Think about the times you have experienced bullying because of something you cannot change and be the first one to be vulnerable in the classroom. In order to create a classroom where difference is discussed, explored and valued, use your own vulnerability to allow others to share.

5. Empower Bystanders

Peers stop at least 50 percent of bullying. Let that sink in! Wow. We rarely discuss the importance of empowering non-disabled heteronormative peers, yet without this embedded into pedagogy, students stop a lot of bullying. What if we could make this 80 percent?

Talk about the importance of being a Good Samaritan, why it is important to use your voice for the voiceless, and great subject matter centric examples of people who would be more comfortable remaining silent but instead courageously spoke out against oppression. 

When my brother and I were growing up, we were always quite tall, my brother ending up at 6’7 and me at nearly six feet tall. My father would always tell us that it was our job, being the tallest, to be the anti-bully and make sure the smallest weren’t picked on. In retrospect, I think of the empowerment and respect my father showed us and think about it on a broader scale. Although it is important to be keenly aware of the laws protecting students with disabilities and give those students a voice to be their own best advocate, teaching peers about bullying is arguably as important.

As someone who has worked in this intersection for a long time, it will be a welcome shift when bullies are shut down by an empowered majority as opposed to a given tacit approval by scared and uniformed peers. 

This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we've preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer's own.