Friendships Matter: Beating the Bully Problem

by Christina Medvescek on March 1, 2005 - 10:59am

"I sometimes wonder if the kids in high school who called me names think of me now,” Gabrielle Ford wrote in “From Where I Sit: From a Cocoon to a Butterfly,” Quest, July-August 2004. “I wonder if they remember how they tripped me, knocked my books out of my hands, slammed my locker shut, threw spit wads at me, and hit and bruised my legs.”

Kids with disabilities are prime targets for bullies. Although some adults believe bullying “toughens you up” or say “kids will be kids,” bullying of children with disabilities is called “a very serious problem” by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

Not only can bullying cause kids to hate school and get poor grades, it contributes to low self-esteem, increased fear and anxiety, depression, and even physical ailments such as body aches and fatigue.

Federal laws protect the rights of children with disabilities against bullying. These include Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Under federal law, it’s the school’s responsibility to stop bullying and harassment of students with disabilities. But in reality parents more often initiate action.

A child’s Individual Education Program (IEP) is one avenue. An IEP is a legal document that spells out the services, accommodations and modifications a school will undertake to ensure a “free appropriate public education” for a student with a disability.

Typically, spring is the “season” for updating IEPs, although meetings can be held at any time by parent or school request. Parents don’t need to call an IEP meeting to get the school to respond to bullying. However, having solutions written into an IEP can be useful.

Anti-bullying strategies take two forms: steps to prevent children from being bullied and steps to deal with bullying when it occurs.

Helping your child make friends offers some protection against bullying. Photo by David Kennedy


Studies show that children who interact with their peers are less likely to be bullied.

IEP goals that ensure full inclusion in regular classrooms and school social activities may provide some protection down the line by increasing the child’s friendships and self-confidence.

Responding to bullying

Other useful strategies include:

  • a schoolwide program addressing harassment
  • educating classmates and school staff about the child’s disability and use of assistive equipment
  • programs to help a child improve social and self-advocacy skills, and learn ways to react to, handle and avoid bullying behavior
  • a friendship club for the child, run by a teacher or school counselor
  • supplementary hallway or playground monitoring by school staff
  • allowing the child to leave class early to avoid hallway incidents
  • creating a no-questions-asked procedure for the child to leave a situation in which bullying occurs

Do your homework

Before addressing the school about bullying, do some paperwork. Write down information about the incidents, including dates, names, locations and the child’s account. Include photographs, and tape-record the child’s account of the incidents. Keep copies of all communication with the school, the school’s response, actions taken, reports filed, etc.

The PACER Center (Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights) has a curriculum called “Is Your Child a Target of Bullying? Intervention Strategies for Parents of Children with Disabilities.” The PowerPoint presentation, available in English and Spanish, suggests ways to deal with bullying behavior, educates about laws and policies, and explains how to address bullying in IEPs. Contact PACER at (952) 838-9000 or visit

Remember to include the child in problem solving. For example, Monica Moshenko of Williamsville, N.Y., wasn’t pleased with the school’s response to the bullying of her autistic elementary-age son on the school bus: the school assigned him a bus seat.

She thought this solution singled him out as “different,” but her son liked the plan. “Alex liked it because he knew he had a place to sit. I had to say, ‘If that’s what you need, then it’s OK with me.’”

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