The past several years have brought media coverage of several unthinkable tragedies related to bullying. Several teens who had been assaulted or harassed committed suicide, as the pain they were suffering outpaced time’s ability to strengthen, protect and heal. Child psychologists, educators, parents, all responsible adults, finally realize that to endure bullying is not an acceptable rite of passage for our children. Bullying can leave lasting harm all around. Bullies, if left unchecked, often become abusive or manipulative adults. While many victims of bullying do emerge from childhood relatively unscathed, some may experience difficulty developing confidence and trust in others, and may even suffer a form of post traumatic stress disorder. The damage inflicted by bullying may be aggravated for children with disabilities that affect their learning, social or coping skills.
In 2010, comprehensive legislation to address bullying in Massachusetts public and private special education schools, was enacted. The law, carrying the straightforward title, An Act Relative to Bullying in Schools, requires school administrators to prohibit bullying on school grounds, property adjacent to school grounds, bus stops, or at school-sponsored events, and to develop a plan, including instruction incorporated into the curriculum, and teacher training, aimed at preventing bullying. The plan must make clear that bullying is prohibited, as is retaliation against a student who reports bullying. The law adopts a common sense understanding that not every act of cruelty or non-physical assault constitutes bullying. The statute defines bullying as either a physical act or repeated use of written, verbal or electronic expression that causes physical or emotional harm to the victim or his or her property, places the victim in fear, creates a hostile environment at school, infringes on the victims rights at school, or significantly disrupts the education process.
The anti-bullying act specifically addresses the issue of bullying of children with disabilities. Whenever an Individualized Education Program evaluation indicates that a child has a disability that affects development of social skills or causes the child to be vulnerable to bullying because of his disability, the Individualized Education Plan must specifically address the skills needed to avoid and respond to bullying, harassment, and teasing. The skills needed to avoid and respond to bullying must be identified and developed for every child diagnosed with a disability on the autism spectrum, which includes autistic disorder, Asperger’s disorder, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified, childhood disintegrative disorder, or Rhett’s syndrome, all as defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association. In 2011, the State Director of Special Education issued a Technical Assistance Advisory regarding the interplay between the anti-bullying and special education laws. The Advisory notes that for some special needs students, either with a disability on the autism spectrum disorder or whose disability leaves them vulnerable to bullying, the school system’s interventions for all students may address the special needs student’s issues. In those instances, the fact should be noted on the IEP. When additional individual measures are required, they must of course be described on the IEP, and may include measures such as inclusion in a communication/social pragmatics skills group, personnel assigned to monitor the student at vulnerable times, such as lunch or recess, identifying a specific adult for the student to turn to when feeling threatened, or other measures identified by the IEP Team.
As the anti-bullying legislation is relatively new, and the efforts of school systems to prevent and respond to bullying are evolving, continued progress in reducing bullying and its more destructive impacts, can be expected for students in the regular curriculum and for students receiving special education and related services.