[caption id="attachment_835" align="alignleft" width="300"] Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono[/caption] Anti-Bullying Laws Called for in Maryland after a Special Needs Student Sues The issue of bullying in schools is certainly a hot button for parents, students, and administrators alike. For people working within the special education sector, the impact of bullying on the most fragile students can be calculated each day. However, there is much debate as to what constitutes “real” bullying, the effects that the bullying has on special needs students, and what role teachers and administrators should play in prevention and reporting of such incidents. Recently, a court case in Baltimore, MD placed the spotlight on bullying once again, with particular emphasis on its impact on special needs students and the need for stronger laws to protect them. Maryland’s Latest Case – The Problem with “Buzzwords” Two weeks ago Edmund and Shawna Sullivan sued the Baltimore city school system along with two of its principals with the allegation that the school failed to address the effects of bullying on their son, a special needs student with a traumatic brain injury The result, the law suit contends, was that the 8-year-old boy had to be sent to a psychiatric institution. Despite the fact that one of the principals named in the suit admitted that he “might have” heard of the bullying that was taking place, which included both physical assault and robbery, ultimately, the court ruled in favor of the school district, citing lack of evidence along with a failure on the part of the parents to file Maryland’s state-mandated bullying reporting form. During the trial that same principal claimed that "bullying has become a buzzword" among students, which prevented him from taking further action. Comments like this have encouraged the Sullivans and parents of other special needs students to demanding more attention be paid to the particular struggles their children face when bullying occurs at school. Bullying and Special Needs Students – What Can We Do? This case in Maryland highlights an important issue among teachers, parents, and students both within and surrounding the special needs community. These students are often the most vulnerable of victims, suffering from physical and mental handicaps which then lead to social isolation. In Maryland, statistics say that 25% of all bulling victims are special needs students. When a special needs student is singled out and bullied, the effects can manifest ten-fold due to their existing role on the outskirts of students social structure, making for a disastrous combination. As educators, empathy is one of the most powerful tools we bring to work every day. We need to be aware of the event surrounding us and refuse to write off any child’s complaint as simply “buzzword” or ploy for attention – particularly among special needs students who often lack the ability to fully process the damage that bullying causes until it is too late. All bullying is serious, but in cases like that of the Sullivans, the lack of paperwork is one issue, the principal’s comments another. How can we feel safe sending our children to schools where bullying is written off so easily? What can we do be sure that we are not just parents and teachers, but advocates for our students and children, particularly those with special needs? Certainly, each case of bullying should be taken on its own and special needs students shouldn’t be treated any differently in bullying investigations – all bullying is unacceptable – but there is clearly a need to readdress the issue of empathy among our administrators and other school personnel and that can only come from systematic change in regards to our attitudes about bullying in general.
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