DOE Releases “Dear Colleague Letter” On School District Responsibilities To Address Bullying Of Students With Disabilities

On August 20, 2013, the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) released a “Dear Colleague Letter” providing an overview of school districts’ responsibilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to address bullying of students with disabilities. The letter emphasizes that bullying of a student with a disability that results in the student not receiving meaningful educational benefit constitutes a denial of a free appropriate public education (FAPE) under the IDEA that must be remedied.

OSERS states that regardless of whether the bullying is related to the student’s disability, schools have an obligation to ensure that a student with a disability who is the target of bullying behavior continues to receive FAPE in accordance with his or her IEP. Thus, as part of its response to the bullying of a student with a disability, OSERS advises that school districts should convene an IEP team meeting to determine whether the student’s needs have changed as a result of the effects of bullying. If the team determines that the IEP is no longer designed to provide meaningful educational benefit to the student, the IEP team must then determine to what extent additional or different special education or related services are needed to address the student’s individual needs, and revise the IEP accordingly. If the student who engaged in the bullying behavior is a student with a disability, OSERS also advises districts that the IEP team should review that student’s IEP to determine if additional supports and services are needed to address the inappropriate behavior, and determine if changes to the environment in which the bullying occurred are warranted.

OSERS also recommends exercising caution when considering a change in the placement or the location of services provided to the student with a disability who is the target of bullying. That school should keep the student in the original placement unless the student can no longer receive FAPE in the current least restrictive environment placement. It also reminds administrators that they may not unilaterally change the frequency, duration, intensity, placement, or location of the student’s special education and related services as a response to bullying, but rather these decisions must be made by the IEP team. It further states that school districts must grant a parental request for an IEP team meeting where a student’s needs may have changed as a result of bullying, and notes that bullying may trigger a school district’s child find obligations under the IDEA in circumstances involving a student who previously has not been identified as a child with a disability.

In addition to the Dear Colleague Letter, OSERS also released a guidance document titled “Effective Evidence-based Practices for Preventing and Addressing Bullying” that aims to provide specific strategies school districts and schools can implement to effectively prevent and respond to bullying, as well as resources for obtaining additional information.