Archive - Apr 21, 2011

Special Education and Bullying

It has always been a tenet of American Education that students deserve a safe and appropriate educational environment, independent of any special needs that a student might have and there are various rules in place to protect this right. Yet sometimes these rules have to be used in new and creative ways to assure that a student gets the educational opportunity they deserve.

The first creative use of these rules was when a woman I knew who had a child with severe peanut allergies tried to get the school to make accommodations. The school balked and stonewalled until the woman brought in a disabilities act lawyer and the school came to understand that it would be much easier to comply than to fight. The school made some simple changes to its policies and the child managed to get an appropriate and safe education.

I’m now told that a similar legal maneuver might be taking place in a notorious bullying case here in Connecticut. In this case, the school district may be seeking to have the bullied student placed in special education. On the surface, this sounds offensive, especially from a school district that claims to have a zero tolerance for bullying. Requiring a safe classroom, free from bullying, shouldn’t be considered a special need. It is a need of all students. Suggesting that it is a special need seems to be an admission that the school is failing in its basic responsibilities to provide a safe, bullying-free environment.

On the other hand, it might also be an attempt to save face. By claiming that the student has a special need for a safe bullying-free environment, the administrators may be trying to assert that their environment is, in their minds, and perhaps even for most of the students, safe and bullying-free, while for the student in question, it is not.

Whether this is an admission of failure or an attempt to save face, there is a bigger issue, will the student get the education she needs and deserves? Given the actions of the school up to now, it would be easy to imagine that attempting to put the child in a special education setting might be seen as punishment. It may in fact be the case, if the school is saying that there are other special needs, beside protection from bullying. Yet one of the goals of special education these days is to ‘mainstream’ special needs students. This means having the students involved in as close to normal an education setting as possible.

If the school district can accomplish this, what they will essentially be doing is placing the student in a school where bullying is not an issue and where the same educational opportunities exist. It seems like that has been the goal of the family of the bullied student all along. If that is what the school district is seeking to do, then my thought is let them try to save face that way. Each one of us will decide whether we believe that the need to be in a bully-free environment is a special situation for the student or an admission of failure by the school district.

If, on the other hand, there is any whiff of a punitive approach where the student is not getting the same educational opportunities, then it would seem that the school district is acting in a foolhardy manner that will just end up increasing their legal fees and liabilities.