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.
For example, Margolis said, components of a student's specialized educational plan, called an "Individualized Education Program," need to be heavily integrated in responding to bullying incidents.
"It's important to really pay attention to the 'I' part of IEP, to make sure that students are getting the free public education to which they are entitled," she said.
Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the state education department, said that agency members have been working with local educators in the area of special education and bullying. He said bullying has "been at the top of MSDE's agenda for several years," adding that the state held its largest conference on the topic last month, during which special education was a focus.
Callegary, also part of the coalition, said the state reporting laws could be amended to include more detailed instructions for school administrators that lay out explicitly who is responsible for filing bullying reports, what happens after bullying is reported, the turnaround time for a response to parents and spot checks to ensure an appropriate response is given.
She also said that special-education personnel should be involved in responding to bullying complaints, not just school administrators.
In a recent interview, Barr sat surrounded by a pile of certified mail receipts, documentation of phone calls and other paperwork that showed what led her to the decision to keep Marcus out of school.
A cellphone photo shows the boy's bruises from September and hospital records show visits dating to 2009, when Barr said he was stabbed up and down his back with a pencil by the same student. The school system received Barr's bullying and harassment form Oct. 10. A letter from Marcus' counselor, dated Oct. 19, informed the school that "it is imperative that he feels safe and secure in school so that he can continue to advance academically."
In the meantime, Barr picked up packets of work from the school — the majority of them math worksheets. Visits to Target and Walmart book aisles helped him keep up with his reading.
Legally, the school system doesn't have an obligation to make up special-education services when a parent or guardian willingly keeps a student from school, school officials said.
Documents show the school drafted a plan to separate Marcus and his classmate during lunch and recess. But it wasn't enough, Marcus said, because "they're going to keep beating me up all the time."
After 35 days and Barr's contacting The Baltimore Sun, school officials told Barr that she could face truancy court — a warning usually issued after a student is absent 10 to 20 days.
"Up until then, no one would help me," Barr said. "No one would do anything, and I don't know why. Maybe because I'm a nuisance parent. Maybe because I don't look and talk like them. But I wouldn't stop, and won't stop until he gets the education he deserves."
A letter sent from schools CEO Andrés Alonso to Barr in November says that school officials did everything they could to help Marcus. He implored her to send him back to school.
In the letter, Alonso outlined actions he said the system had taken since the Sept. 30 incident. These included a series of communications between Barr and city school officials where transfer options, amendments to Marcus' IEP and a plan to keep Marcus safe were offered but refused. He rejected her claim, which she made in a formal complaint to the state, that the school system was not responsive.
"I am deeply concerned by the amount of school time that Marcus has lost," Alonso wrote. He said he didn't take her to truancy court because he was hoping for a resolution.
Marcus eventually transferred.
Jonathan Brice, school support network officer for the city system, said special-education students make up about a quarter of the students who are bullied. So far this school year, special-education students have been 25 percent of the victims and 28 percent of the alleged bullies.
Brice said that while special-education students can sometimes present unique challenges, they should be dealt with on a case-by-case basis to ensure that the issues of all students involved in the bullying are addressed.
"A broad-brush approach to dealing with bullying of special-education kids is akin to a zero-tolerance approach for all kids," Brice said. "It doesn't work.
"The concern is the bullying of every child," he said. "One of the issues we are grappling with is making sure in every case, we are giving them an opportunity to be heard, sifting through what we're hearing, and getting the appropriate intervention."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun