Special-education advocates are calling for the state to do more to address the bullying of disabled students, saying that a recent lawsuit against the city school system highlights the long-lasting harm that harassment can do to such children.

Experts want officials to strengthen Maryland's anti-bullying laws to provide more detailed rules for educators to follow in reporting incidents and more scrutiny in situations that involve sometimes-fragile students.

"They have targets on their back, and with a child who already has a disability, the damage can be greater," said Ellen Callegary, an attorney and special-education advocate for more than 30 years, who is part of a coalition of advocates pressing for changes at the state level. "There appears to be an inability of school personnel to understand how deeply that is felt."

A jury trial last week in which a family sued the school system and two principals, alleging that they failed to address the bullying of their special-needs son — who suffered a traumatic brain injury at 13 weeks old — offered a glimpse into how bullying can take a toll on special-education students. Edmund and Shawna Sullivan said as a result of the bullying, the boy, then 8, had to be placed in a psychiatric institution.

The jury ruled in favor of the school system, based on a lack of evidence. Some jurors pointed out that the parents didn't file a state-mandated bullying and reporting form, which education officials say has been available to parents for the past two years.

But one principal drew the ire of advocates when he testified that although reports the boy and his sister were beaten and robbed "may have been mentioned," "bullying has become a buzzword."

Callegary said that statement epitomizes the need for more empathy for disabled students who are bullied.

"The impact of the nastiness, of the mean words, the hitting, has a deeper and more long-lasting impact because they're already fragile," said Callegary. "They don't have the whole list of strategies that a typical child may have for stopping the bullying or articulating what has happened to them."

Lack of response

Some city school parents and experts say that while the Sullivans put a public face on the issue of bullying, other special-education students have endured similar battles.

Marcus Harrell, a 9-year-old boy who suffers from attention-deficit disorder and falls on the autism spectrum, was beaten in the head Sept. 30 by a student in the cafeteria at Mary Ann Winterling Elementary School. He then started having nightmares, developed tics and needed heavier doses of medication, according to his grandmother and guardian, Loretta Barr.

He remained out of school for 35 days — too scared to go back to the school he loved, she said.

"We tried to get him up to the school, and he kicked and screamed because he didn't want to go in there," a tearful Barr said in a recent interview. "I just couldn't do it to him. So I said, 'If they won't protect him, I will.'"

Immediately after the incident, Barr took her plight up the chain of command in the city school system. When she did not receive a response, she contacted the mayor's office, the Maryland State Department of Education, and even the U.S. Department of Education, all of whom directed her back to the city school system.

"I felt so empty inside and like I failed," Barr said. "No one would listen to me, no one wanted to hear me, no one wanted to help me."

School officials rebutted Barr's claims of unresponsiveness but said they couldn't discuss the case specifically. They said parents' frustration usually is a result of administrators not being able to disclose disciplinary actions that are taken against other students.

But special-education advocates said Barr's experience is shared by many.

"It's appalling," Leslie Margolis, an attorney with the Maryland Disability Law Center, said of Marcus' case. "This is not the first time we have heard of families reporting abusiveness and a lack of response on the part of school systems, and that is unacceptable."

Margolis chairs the Education Advocacy Coalition, a group of organizations and special education experts that represents families of disabled students. She said the group has noted increasingly frustrated calls about bullying from parents of students with disabilities.

The group plans to meet with Maryland State Department of Education officials who oversee special education and bullying to address how the state's anti-bullying efforts can better serve those students.