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Bullying of Students with Disabilities: New Guidance for Schools from DOE’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS)

No Bullying: Safe Schools for All!Just prior to the start of the current school year, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) issued a “Dear Colleague Letter” to schools nationwide that provides guidance on the matter of bullying of students with disabilities and makes clear that any form of bullying of a student with a disability can constitute a violation of federal law.

Disability rights advocates have hailed the letter as a significant step forward in protecting students with disabilities from bullying. More than simply outlining a school district’s responsibilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to address bullying of students with disabilities, the letter is significant because, in the words of the NY State School Boards Association, “The Dear Colleague letter represents DOE’s interpretation of school districts’ responsibilities to prevent and remedy bullying that targets disabled students. It can influence judicial thinking when lawsuits arise claiming that a school district denied a student’s IDEA rights based on bullying.”

Along with the Dear Colleague letter, OSERS also published an Enclosure that outlines effective evidence-based practices for addressing bulling. In addition to recommending embedding efforts to prevent and address bullying behavior within a multitiered behavioral framework, the enclosure emphasizes schools’ legal obligations, stating: “Harassment against a student on the basis of disability and retaliation against any student or other person are also prohibited under Section 504, Title II, and other Federal civil rights laws enforced by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.”

We wanted to write a post to bring this important, but under-circulated Dear Colleague Letter/position statement to our readers’ attention, summarize its contents, and provide an overview of the accompanying Enclosure document by OSERS that outlines effective evidence-based practices for addressing bullying. Links to the full documents are provided for those who wish to read the publications in their entirety.

U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services Dear Colleague Letter on Keeping Students with Disabilities Safe from Bullying

Noting that “children with disabilities are disproportionately affected by bullying,” the Dear Colleague Letter reminds schools that “under IDEA, States and school districts are obligated to ensure that students with disabilities receive FAPE in the least restrictive environment (LRE).

Schools are advised that when a student with a disability experiences bullying, the appropriate response is:

  • Convene the IEP Team… to determine whether the student’s needs have changed as a result of the effects of the bullying.
  • Determine the extent to which additional or different services are needed to address the student’s individual needs if the IEP is no longer designed to provide meaningful educational benefit as a result of the effects of the bullying; and revise the IEP accordingly.

However, the letter urges schools to “exercise caution when considering a change in the placement or the location of services provided to the student with a disability who was the target of the bullying behavior and should keep the student in the original placement unless the student can no longer receive FAPE in the current LRE placement…. placement teams should be aware the certain changes to the education program of a student with a disability may constitute the denial of the IDEA’s requirement that the school provide FAPE in the LRE.”

Enclosure on Bullying of Students with Disabilities

The Enclosure accompanying OSERS Dear Colleague Letter recommends using a multitiered behavior framework to plan, implement, and evaluate evidence-based instruction and interventions to address bullying of students with disabilities. It points to Positive Behavioral Supports and Interventions (PBIS) as one example of a multitiered behavior framework that school personnel can use for this purpose.

The document states:

“By outlining a comprehensive school-wide approach with multitiered instruction and intervention, schools work to create school cultures that prevent the development and reduce the occurrence of bullying.  In addition, schools are prepared to respond to problematic behavior using a team-based, data-driven problem-solving process when needed.”

The Enclosure then identifies eight practices found in many effective, evidence-based behavioral prevention and intervention school-wide frameworks. These are:

    • Teach appropriate behaviors and how to respond. Specifically, teach school staff and students
      • What behaviors are expected at school and during school activities;
      • What bullying looks like; and
      • How to appropriately respond to bullying.
    • Provide active adult supervision, especially in common areas.
      • Teach and model appropriate behavior;
      • Notice & reward appropriate behavior;
      • Intervene early before problems escalate.
    • Train and provide ongoing support for staff and students.
      • Provide school personnel with training, ongoing professional development, and support, including coaching, to all personnel on the use of effective evidence-based strategies for responding to inappropriate behavior, including bullying, as well as evidence-based instruction and classroom management practices.
      • Include specific training on recognizing the different forms of bullying that may be directed at students with disabilities, and the unique vulnerabilities these students may have to social isolation, manipulation, conditional friendships, and exploitive behaviors.
      • Provide staff with clear guidance on legal requirements, policy, and practice implications for students with disabilities.
      • All students should receive clear, explicit instruction on how to respond to and report bullying.  For students with disabilities, instruction on how to respond to and report bullying needs to be provided in a manner consistent with their IEPs and any accommodations that are provided to support learning.
    • Develop and implement clear policies to address bullying.
      • Develop & widely disseminate clear policies and procedures, consistent with Federal, State, and local laws, to prevent and appropriately address bullying of students, including students with disabilities.
      • Train parents and staff on school policies.
      • Published policies & procedures must be accessible to students with disabilities.
      • When bullying occurs, staff need to respond quickly, in accordance with school policies and procedures, and document the response in writing.
    • Monitor and track bullying behaviors.
      • Collect and analyze data on bullying behaviors from multiple sources (including student surveys) to: (a) Obtain a clear picture of what is happening in school and school activities; (b) Guide planning of prevention, instruction, and intervention efforts; and (c) Inform decision making on the effectiveness of current policies and practices over time.
    • Notify parents when bullying occurs.
      • Inform the parents or guardians of both the student who was the target of bullying behavior and the student who engaged in the bullying behavior using clear and accurate communication.
    • Address ongoing concerns.
      • School personnel should use data measuring an individual student’s responsiveness to antibullying instruction and intervention to determine the need for continued, more intensive, and specialized assistance for each student.
      • Interventions may include :  (a) More focused social skills instruction; (b) Frequent, specific feedback on their behavior, or (c) Increased adult engagement.
    • Sustain bullying prevention efforts over time.
      • Prevention of bullying should be ongoing, and accepted as an integral component of the school’s overall behavioral framework that delineates a school’s environment and routine operation.
For additional information and resources on addressing bullying of students with disabilities, the Department of Education Recommends the following:
      Department of Education website 
      It Gets Better

Also, browse NPR, Inc.’s comprehensive selection of resources on bullying prevention.


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