OCR Releases Additional Guidance for Schools: Responsibilities in Responding to the Bullying of a Student with a Disability

In the wake of increasing complaints regarding bullying of students with disabilities, the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights (OCR) released expanded guidance for schools (public, charter, and magnet) regarding responsibilities to prevent and address the bullying of students with disabilities. The OCR clarified that bullying may violate civil rights laws, including Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, even if the bullying was not based on the student's disability. The OCR has also clarified that bullying may interfere with the student's receipt of a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) under Section 504 or the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Districts must take steps to address both the bullying and the impact of bullying on the provision of FAPE.

When an allegation that a student with a disability was bullied arises, districts must: (1) investigate the allegation and implement the established anti-bullying policies; and (2) take additional steps to ensure the provision of FAPE. Specifically, the OCR guidance outlines several steps when a student with a disability is bullied:

  • Promptly determine if the student's receipt of FAPE services may have been affected by the bullying (even if the bullying was not based on the student's disability).
  • Determine if a Section 504 or IEP team meeting is needed (triggers for calling a meeting include changes in academic performance or behavior, such as grades suddenly declining, emotional outbursts, increased frequency or intensity of behavior, or an increase in missed service sessions).
  • Promptly convene the Section 504 team or IEP team to determine if (1) the student's needs have changed due to the bullying, (2) the student's receipt of services necessary for the provision of FAPE has been affected, and (3) if any additional services or changes are necessary to meet the student's needs.
  • Implement changes determined by the Section 504 team or IEP team promptly.
  • Safeguard against the student having the burden to avoid or handle the bullying independently.
In response to this guidance, schools should:

  • Ensure that the school's anti-bullying procedures are followed and that staff members are trained to implement strategies to support students and respond appropriately to allegations of bullying.
  • Conduct thorough and quick investigations when bullying, harassment, or intimidation is suspected for a student with a disability, even if the bullying, harassment or intimidation is not based upon the student's disability.
  • Take prompt and reasonable steps to address any behavior of bullying, harassment, or intimidation, including the environment created by it, elimination of effects, and prevention of reoccurrence.
  • Identify procedures and train staff to ensure that the impact on the provision of FAPE is assessed in situations involving students with disabilities (including promptly convening the Section 504 or IEP team).
  • Ensure procedural safeguards for students with disabilities are followed in assessing the impact on the student's needs and make any necessary changes to the IEP or Section 504 plan (i.e., services, placement, etc.).