When Is Bullying Harassment?

By Cherie Takemoto, PEATC

A student repeatedly places classroom furniture or other objects in the path of classmates who use wheelchairs, impeding the classmates’ ability to enter the classroom.

A teacher subjects a student to inappropriate physical restraint because of conduct related to his disability, with the result that the student tries to avoid school through increased absences.

A professor repeatedly belittles and criticizes a student with a disability for using accommodations in class, with the result that the student is so discouraged that she has difficulty performing in class and learning.

Students continually taunt or belittle a student with mental retardation by mocking and intimidating him so he does not participate in class.

All of these situations above are examples of bullying behavior identified by the U.S. Department of Education in a Letter of Clarification dated July 25, 2000. The Office of Civil Rights and the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services jointly issued the “Dear Colleague” letter. Much of this article comes from that letter.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (section 504) and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) both forbid discrimination of someone who has a disability.

Disability harassment under Section 504 and Title II is intimidation or abusive behavior toward a student based on disability. Harassment can interfere with or keep a student from accessing benefits, services, or opportunities in a school. Harassment can be through words, graphic or written statements, or physically threatening, harmful or humiliating behavior.

The letter states that schools, districts, colleges, and universities have a legal responsibility to prevent and respond to disability harassment. A first step is to develop and publicize an official policy statement prohibiting discrimination based on disability along with grievance procedures to address instances of harassment. This policy can help prevent discrimination by letting students and staff know that disability harassment is unacceptable, violates federal law, and will result and disciplinary action. In addition, institutions must respond to disability harassment when it does occur, end the harassment, and prevent it from recurring.

Some ways the letter recommends to prevent and eliminate harassment include:

  • Creating a campus environment that is aware of disability concerns and sensitive to disability harassment; weaving these issues into the curriculum or programs outside the classroom.
  • Encourage parents, students, employees, and community members to discuss disability harassment and to report it when they become aware of it.
  • Widely publicize anti-harassment statements and procedures for handling discrimination complaints, because this information makes students and employees aware of what constitutes harassment, that such conduct is prohibited, that the institution will not tolerate such behavior, and that effective action, including disciplinary action, where appropriate, will be taken.
  • Providing appropriate, up-to-date, and timely training for staff and students to recognize and handle potential harassment.
  • Counseling both persons who have been harmed by harassment and persons who have been responsible for the harassment of others.
  • Implementing monitoring programs to follow up on resolved issues of disability harassment.
  • Regularly assessing and, as appropriate, modifying existing disability harassment policies and procedures for addressing the issue, to ensure effectiveness.

Harassment protections are not limited to disability. Federal law also prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, and sex. In addition, many states and localities prohibit discrimination based on religion and sexual orientation. The U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, and the National Association of Attorneys General wrote Protecting Students and Harassment and Hate Crime: A Guide for Schools to help schools and others better understand how to respond to harassment. This guide is available on the Internet at https://www2.ed.gov/offices/OCR/archives/Harassment/index.html

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