How a School Allowed the Bullying of a Student with a Learning Disability
Report: The school failed to end the harassment
This story is part of an in-depth package of stories on the subject of bullying in Palo Alto schools. For links to all the stories, follow this link.
Editor’s note: The following is a condensed summary of the findings and conclusions contained in the Office for Civil Rights report concerning the Terman Middle School student.
To protect privacy, the student whose family filed the Office for Civil Rights complaint is referred to as “the Student,” without gender identification, throughout this summary of the federal report’s findings.
The Student had a speech and language impairment that affected interactions with peers, including ability to process language quickly and perceive social cues correctly from other students. The Student was receiving special education and related services.
The problems with peer harassment began in elementary school and continued at Terman Middle School starting in the fall of 2012. Multiple students described a game they called “(the Student) touch.” The game was played with both the Student and another disabled student (like a game of “cooties”).
Many students told the Office for Civil Rights that they consistently tried to avoid the Student, that a lot of people bullied the Student and called the Student names like “stupid,” “slow,” “annoying,” and worse. Classmates said, “If you’re hanging out with (the Student), you’re a loser too.”
Several students told the Office for Civil Rights that they had never said anything to school staff about the Student being bullied because they were worried about being accused of being a snitch.
Five staff members told the Office for Civil Rights that the Student had approached them during the year to report that classmates were picking on the Student. In one instance, counselor notes showed that the Student hit and kicked another student after the other student and two peers were allegedly picking on the Student. The Student identified the harassers, and the counselor met with them for conflict resolution, the outcome of which was an agreement to avoid each other.
At the end of March 2011, the Student was punched in the face after an argument with another student. The counselor met with the two students, and they “agreed to stay away from each other.”
The family emailed the school that a girl in the class had told the Student that everyone hated the Student, and that therefore she had to hate the Student too, and then tried to kick the Student, but the Student got away. The Student told school officials that classmates said things like, “Everyone hates you because you’re different, so why don’t you just go away.” The Student became afraid to go back to school due to the level of peer hate expressed, and the family requested an aide to support the Student.
The resource specialist emailed the district about the request for an aide due to the Student’s reports of bullying. The district said that special education would not furnish an aide to the Student because “bullying is each site’s responsibility.” The district advised the school staff “to work this one out outside the IEP (Individual Education Plan).”
By May 2011, as bullying continued, the family informed the school that they had decided to keep the Student home due to depression and anxiety and the Student’s fear of being exposed to kids making fun and name-calling. This decision was based also on the Student’s doctor’s advice that “It does not make sense to take (the student) to school to be bullied.” The family requested a transfer to another school, which was granted. The Student began attending Jordan Middle School the next fall. In early 2012, the Student began to receive extensive mental health treatment.
Terman did not take any disciplinary action towards students who engaged in harassment of the Student. The stay-away agreements were not effective in stopping the harassment.
The assistant principal told the Office for Civil Rights that the school would have done more if only it had received the names of harassers from the Student. However, the Office for Civil Rights found the counselor’s notes contained many names of students alleged to have harassed, along with descriptions of the incidents. In addition, the family’s e-mails identified students alleged to have harassed the Student.
Terman Principal Katherine Baker disputed that any harassment had occurred, saying: “It was always different kids. If it’s the same kids, then it’s harassment.” Baker also cited the Student’s own unskilled social behavior as contributing to the harassment. Both of these assertions showed a lack of understanding of the law.
None of the school employees described receiving training that addressed harassment based on disability. Baker told the Office for Civil Rights investigators that the staff was very “sophisticated” and “didn’t need disability awareness” training.
The investigators found that the school did not conduct any organized inquiry into the reports of harassment, that each staff member was “left to her own devices” to respond to new information received, and that there was no single person designated to investigate. No structured approach was taken to interviewing students, and records weren’t kept of the interviews. There was no analysis made about whether the harassment was based on disability or whether a hostile environment had been created, as required by law. The school’s handbook made no reference to disability-based harassment or procedures for resolving complaints about it.
The investigators concluded that the school failed to respond promptly and effectively to ample notice that the Student was being subjected to peer harassment based on disability. The school’s response was not reasonably calculated to end the harassment, prevent it from recurring, or eliminate the effects of the hostile environment on the Student. The Office for Civil Rights concluded that the school did not comply with the law.
The investigators also found that many students had biases about students with disabilities and had never received any instruction about how to interact with these students. Many students perceived disabled students as “weird,” disruptive in class and a burden to work with on a group project. Others mentioned a student who stuttered and students who read slowly and how they were annoying and wasting class time with their slow behaviors.
Summarized by Terri Lobdell
Source: Office for Civil Rights
“Letter of Finding” dated Dec. 26, 2012 in Case No. 09-11-1337