What laws protect physically disabled children from harassment at school?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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Written by Jeffrey Johnson
Insurance Lawyer Jeffrey Johnson

UPDATED: Mar 18, 2021

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There are several existing laws designed to protect a disabled child from harassment while at school. These protections include The Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which defines a disability as any physical or mental condition that seriously limits a major life activity. This definition applies to children who have any kind of disability, non-disabled children who are treated as if they have a disability, and children who were labeled as having a disability in the past, even if they did not.

The Rehabilitation Act

The Rehabilitation Act, enforced by the Office of Civil Rights, prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs or activities that receive federal funds. Since almost all schools receive federal money, both public and private schools are covered under the laws of this act. Schools are required to provide disabled students with appropriate educational services that are designed to meet the needs of such students to the same extent that non-disabled students’ needs are met.

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Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA)

Public school students are also protected by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA is a federal law that funds special education programs and guarantees the right of students to attend public school and access the school’s regular education curriculum. Each state is responsible for overseeing IDEA and distributing the funds for special education programs.

Disability & Harassment – Taking Action

In essence, all of these laws maintain that schools, colleges, universities, and other educational institutions have a duty to ensure that all students, including those with disabilities, are provided with equal educational opportunities. Unfortunately, perhaps due to a lack of sufficient resources, harassment of physically disabled students continues to be a problem in public schools all over America.

The U.S. Department of Education defines disability harassment as abusive or intimidating behavior that creates a hostile environment and prevents a student from receiving the benefits of an institution or program. Harassment can include name-calling, written statements, or any other harmful or humiliating conduct. If a child is being harassed at school because of a disability, the school could be held legally responsible. Before taking legal action, consider the following steps.

First, remember that not all negative encounters with other students are considered harassment. Some actions, while cruel, may not necessarily violate the law. Illegal harassment must be continual and repetitive. It must also be severe, pervasive, and persistent enough to make it difficult for the child to learn or take part in school activities. If you think your child is being harassed, talk to your child’s teacher first and document the meeting or phone call in writing. If the behavior is severe, or the teacher doesn’t fix the problem quickly, schedule a meeting with the principal or another school administrator. You can also contact the school district and request a response in writing. Additionally, you may want to request an IEP Team meeting, which will inform school staff of the situation and provide an opportunity for interested parties to brainstorm solutions.

If you have taken these steps and the harassment persists, consider taking legal action. Your child’s school or school district may be legally responsible for the harassment if the school engages in bad faith or gross misjudgment, creates or allows an abusive environment, responds to the harassment with actions that are clearly unreasonable, or shows deliberate indifference to the harassment. 

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