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Bullying & Harassment

What is bullying?picture of boy with head in hands


Bullying is aggressive behavior that is intentional and that involves an imbalance of power or strength. Often, it is repeated over time. Bullying can take many forms, such as hitting, kicking, shoving (physical bullying), teasing or name-calling(verbal bullying), intimidation through gestures or social exclusion (nonverbal bullying or emotional bullying), and sending insulting messages by text messaging or e-mail (cyberbullying).

October, 2109 - As part of National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month, the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR)  issued guidance to schools reminding them that bullying is wrong and must not be tolerated – including against America’s 6.5 million students with disabilities.

Five Characteristics of Bullying (Marini, Fairbairn & Zuber,2001)

  1. Power differential – Bullies demonstrate greater physical strength, higher cognitive abilities, or knowledge of particular psychological vulnerabilities.

  2.  Repeated – Acts of bullying are rarely isolated. Repetition distinguishes bullying and has a devastating impact. The anticipation and expectation of future abuse inflicts great harm on victims.

  3. Intent to harm – Bullies act purposefully, seeking to injure their peers physically and/or psychologically.

  4. Creation of anxiety, intimidation and fear – Bullying victims live with constant fear and a feeling of powerlessness.

  5. Secretiveness – Bullies go to considerable lengths to keep their acts hidden from parents and teachers.

Children with disabilities are often the target of bullying.

There is a small but growing amount of research literature on bullying among children with disabilities and special needs. This research indicates that these children may be at particular risk of being bullied by their peers. Of course children with disabilities may in fact be engaged in bullying another, however, research tells us that more often, children with disabilities or medical needs are victims of bullying.

For example, research tells us that:

  • Although little research has been conducted on the relation between learning disabilities (LD) and bullying, available information indicates that children with LD are at greater risk of being teased and physically bullied (Martlew & Hodson, 1991; Mishna, 2003; Nabuzoka & Smith, 1993; Thompson, Whitney, & Smith, 1994).
  • Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are more likely than other children to be bullied. They also are somewhat more likely than others to bully their peers (Unnever & Cornell, 2003).
  • Children with medical conditions that affect their appearance (e.g., cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, and spina bifida) are more likely to be victimized by peers. Frequently, these children report being called names related to their disability (Dawkins, 1996).
  • Obesity also may place children at higher risk of being bullied. In a study of children aged 11–16, researchers found that overweight and obese girls(aged 11–16) and boys (aged 11–12) were more likely than normal-weight peers to be teased or to be made fun of and to experience relational bullying (e.g., to be socially excluded). Overweightand obese girls were also more likely to be physically bullied (Janssen, Craig, Boyce, & Pickett, 2004).
  • Children who have diabetes and who are dependent on insulin may be especially vulnerable to peer bullying (Storch et al., 2004).
  • Children who stutter may be more likely than their peers to be bullied. In one study, 83 percent of adults who had problems with stammering as children said that they had been teased or bullied; 71 percent of those who had been bullied said it happened at least once a week (Hugh-Jones & Smith, 1999).

Can bullying be illegal?

Yes. Bullying behavior may cross the line to become "disability harassment,” which is illegal under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Section 504, Title II, and IDEA require that school districts make a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) available to eligible students with disabilities. Disability harassment, in addition to amounting to unlawful discrimination, can result in a denial of FAPE. According to the U.S. Department of Education, disability harassment is "intimidation or abusive behavior toward a student based on disability that creates a hostile environment by interfering with or denying a student's participation in or receipt of benefits, services, or opportunities in the institution's program” (U.S. Department of Education, 2000). This behavior can take different forms including verbal harassment, physical threats, or threatening written statements. When a school finds out that harassment may have occurred, staff must investigate the incident(s) promptly and respond appropriately.

Adapted from Legal Claims Related to Bullying and Harassment and Stop Bullying Now resource kit – available online at: www.stopbullyingnow.hrsa.gov





Dawkins, J. L. (1996). Bullying, physical disability and the paediatric patient. Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, 38, 603-612.

Education Law Center (2002). What can you do if your child with a disability is being harassed by other students? (fact sheet). Retrieved August 10,2005, from www.elc-pa.org.

Hugh-Jones, S. & Smith, P. K. (1999). Self-reports of short and long term effects of bullying on children who stammer. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 69, 141-158.

Janssen, I., Craig, W. M., Boyce, W. F., & Pickett, W. (2004). Associations between overweight and obesity within bullying behaviors in school-aged children. Pediatrics, 113, 1187-1194.

Martlew, M., & Hodson, J. (1991). Children with mild learning difficulties in an integrated and in a special school: comparisons of behaviour,teasing and teachers' attitudes. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 61, 355-372.

Marini, Fairbairn & Zuber,(2001) Peer harassment in individuals with developmental disabilities: Towards the development of a multi-dimensional bullying identification model, Developmental Disabilities Bulletin 29, 170-195.

Mishna, F. (2003). Learning disabilities and bullying: Double jeopardy. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 36, 1-15.

Nabuzoka, D. & Smith, P. K. (1993). Sociometric status and social behaviour of children with and without learning difficulties. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 34, 1435-1448.

Storch, E. A., Lewin, A. B., Silverstein, J. H., Heidgerken, A. D., Strawser, M. S., Baumeister, A., & Geffken, G. R. (2004a). Peer victimization and psychosocial adjustment in children with type 1 diabetes. Clinicial Pediatrics, 43, 467-471.

Storch, E. A., Lewin, A. B., Silverstein, J. H., Heidgerken, A. D., Strawser, M. S., Baumeister, A., &

Geffken, G. R. (2004b). Social-psychological correlates of peer victimization in children with endocrine disorders. Journal of Pediatrics, 145, 784-784.

Thompson, D., Whitney, I., & Smith, P. (1994). Bullying of children with special needs in mainstream schools. Support for Learning, 9, 103-106.

Unnever, J. D., & Cornell, D. G. (2003). Bullying, self-control, and ADHD. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 18, 129-147.

U.S. Department of Education (2000). Prohibited disability harassment: Reminder of responsibilities under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Retrieved August 10, 2005, from www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/disabharassltr.html.

Yude, C., Goodman, R., & McConachie, H. (1998). Peer problems of children with hemiplegia in mainstream primary schools. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 39, 533-541.

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