Sticks and Stones can Break Your Bones But Words can Break Your Heart: Preventing Disability Harassment in Schools

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Jeremy was in tears and Brenda's temperature had reached the boiling point. Jeremy was in 7th Grade and used a wheelchair. Everything at school had been fine until the new the new kid transferred in. The new kid had started calling Jeremy the “crip”. Jeremy could handle some kidding about his using a wheelchair, but there was a mean and ridiculing tone to the way the new kid called Jeremy “crip”.

At first, Brenda, as the patient and wise mother, had counseled Jeremy to just ignore the new kid; with time, the teasing would stop. After all, sticks and stones could break your bones, but words could never hurt you. But, a few of the other kids thought the new kid was cool and began calling Jeremy “crip” as well. It had gotten so bad that Jeremy no longer looked forward to going to school. Brenda had complained to the school principal, but his response had been boys will be boys and Jeremy probably needed to get used to the “real world.” In the real world people get teased. Brenda knew that people got teased in the real world, but she expected some adult control of this behavior.  Today, the new kid had placed some chairs in front of the accessible rest room door and Jeremy hadn’t been able to maneuver his wheel chair to get into the rest room.

Fortunately, one of Jeremy’s friends saw the predicament and moved the chairs just before Jeremy had nearly wet himself. Jeremy was hurt and very embarrassed. 

Because of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, children with disabilities successfully go to school with children without disabilities. But sometimes, incidents like this one, in which students with disabilities are picked on because they have a disability, do occur. There are two federal laws, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that prohibit discrimination against students with disabilities. These laws require school districts to make sure that the school environment is free from abusive and intimidating behavior towards students with disabilities  by students or school staff. This kind of behavior is considered disaibility harassment. The following are answers to some frequently asked questions regarding disability harassment in school. 

1.     What is disability harassment?

Disability harassment is intimidating or abusive behavior toward a student based on a disability. This behavior can create a hostile environment in the school and deny a student equal access to the school program. Harassing a student based on the student’s disability violates Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act. Under these laws schools have an affirmative obligation to make sure that students are not harassed because they have a disability.

 2.     What are examples of disability harassment?Calling students with disabilities names, drawing pictures or writing statements, or other conduct that is physically threatening, harmful, or humiliating to the student with a disaibility is considered disability harassment. For example: 

● students continually referring to a student with dyslexia as dumb;

 ● students repeatedly placing classroom furniture in the way of a student who uses a wheelchair;

● a school administrator denying a student with a disability access to lunch, field trips, assemblies and extracurricular activities as punishment for the student taking time off from school because the student needed to attend therapy sessions or a medical appointment;

 ●Students continually taunting or belittling a student with mental retardation by mocking or intimidating the student;

●A teacher belittling or criticizing a student with a disability because the student uses accommodations in class.  

3.     What should a parent do if they feel their child is being harassed?

The parent should first contact the school principal to discuss the harassment. If the harassment continues, the parent should contact the Section 504/ADA Coordinator for the school district. Section 504 and the ADA require that school districts designate an individual to coordinate the school district’s compliance with these two federal laws prohibiting discrimination based on disability. The 504/ADA coordinator should be able to help the parents resolve the harassment. Parents may also contact the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) within the United States Department of Education. The Office for Civil Rights is the federal agency that is responsible for enforcing Section 504 and the ADA in the public school system. Parents can obtain more information regarding the Office for Civil Rights and disability harassment, including how to file a complaint, through its website at .  

 4.     How can schools and school staff prevent disability harassment?

School districts should have a clear policy prohibiting disability discrimination. The policy should specifically describe disability harassment and clearly state that it is unacceptable. School staff should be trained in how to recognize and handle potential disability harassment. Moreover, parents, students, teachers, and other school staff  should be encouraged to discuss disability harassment and report it if it occurs. The school district should have a clear grievance process to be used by students, parents, educators and others if they think an individual is being harassed due to their disability. The school district should widely publicize the procedures for handling disability harassment so that students, parents, school employees, and the community are aware of what disability harassment is, that disability harassment will not be tolerated, and where and how complaints involving disability harassment are handled.  Finally, if the school district receives a complaint about disability harassment, the school district should make sure that the harassment ends immediately. In order to resolve the issues, the school might support the student who has been harmed by providing counseling and also counsel the individual or individuals  responsible for the harassment. The district should put in place a monitoring or follow up program to make sure the harassment is resolved. 

  In the last thirty years children with disabilities have become more   integrated into our public school system. Students and teachers have learned to appreciate that we all have differences. Sometimes, however, individuals are picked on because they are different or have special needs. Federal law requires that schools make sure that students are not picked on, or harassed, because they have a disability. Sticks and stones can break your bones, but words can break your heart. When those words harass a student based on the student’s disability, they also break the law.