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ASAN Commends US Department of Education on Dear Colleague Letter on Bullying Prevention

Below are comments from ASAN President Ari Ne’eman, delivered on August 20th, 2013 during a call with with stakeholders from the education and disability communities on the Department of Education’s new guidance on bullying prevention and IDEA. Presenters on the call included OSEP Director Melody Musgrove and White House Associate Director of Public Engagement Claudia Gordon.

Thank you, Melody, for your remarks detailing provisions of the Dear Colleague letter the Department is issuing today. It is a pleasure to join you and I’d like to take this opportunity to commend the Department on this significant step forward in ensuring that all students, including those with disabilities, have the right to go to school free from bullying and harassment. On behalf of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, a national advocacy group run by and for Autistic adults and youth, I want to highlight the importance of this Dear Colleague letter and the accompanying enclosure on evidence-based practices.

In my work with ASAN, I’ve had occasion to speak with countless youth and adults who have experienced bullying behavior and have shared the long term consequences of the experience. Bullying leaves a mark on its victims that lasts years, even decades, after the incident itself. The post-traumatic stress faced by those targeted by bullies and bullying behavior can negatively impact victims’ ability to trust others, form meaningful relationships and have the confidence necessary to succeed in school and the workplace. In the war for safe and cruelty-free schools, we must all remember the stakes.

Unfortunately, conversations on addressing bullying prevention have not always given sufficient emphasis to the degree to which students with disabilities are disproportionately vulnerable to bullying and other forms of social cruelty from their peers. Not only are students with disabilities disproportionately subject to bullying, but when a child with a disability is bullied, very often the assumption is that it is the child with a disability who should be removed from the classroom. This “blame the victim” mentality has had a particularly negative impact on the opportunity of students on the autism spectrum and with other disabilities impacting on social communication to realize their right to a Free and Appropriate Public Education in the Least Restrictive Environment.

Two years ago, President Obama convened stakeholders from across the country to address the issue of bullying at the White House Conference on Bullying Prevention. One of my most significant recollections from that event was the difficulty we all faced in how to match our aspiration of schools safe for learning with the tools necessary to empower students and families to make that a reality. Shortly afterwards, we began pushing for guidance that specifically utilized the educational rights available to students with disabilities under IDEA to ensure that schools had an obligation to act against bullying that denies students with disabilities meaningful educational benefit, regardless of whether or not that bullying is related to the child’s disability. This is significant and in fact goes above and beyond the Department’s previous guidance on bullying prevention, as it creates an obligation on school districts to act even if the bullying behavior a student is subject to is not based on or motivated by their status in a protected class.

Furthermore, the letter’s reinforcing of rights under IDEA’s Least Restrictive Environment provision is an equally important and vital protection for students with disabilities. If the result of our efforts to ensure school districts fulfill their obligation to act against bullying was that more students with disabilities were sent out of the general education classroom and into segregated special education settings, we would be taking a step backwards rather than forwards. That this letter provides such clear and compelling language noting that placing a child in a more restrictive setting, even for the purpose of protecting them from bullying, may constitute a denial of their LRE rights is an important aspect of this letter. I urge all who report on this new development to give it as great an emphasis as the FAPE components of the Dear Colleague letter.

Like most Autistic Americans, I personally experienced significant bullying during my time in the school system. Because of that, I was sent away from a neighborhood school and denied access to the general education classroom. With the issuance of this Dear Colleague letter, we take a significant and measurable step towards ensuring that the next generation of youth will enjoy more meaningful access to their rights under IDEA. If I may, I’d like to close with a few words from the late, great Ed Roberts, one of the fathers of the disability rights movement, said on occasion of the success of the 504 sit-in on April 30th, 1977, “We have begun to ensure a future for ourselves, and a future for the millions of young people with disabilities, who I think will find a new world as they begin to grow up. Who may not have to suffer the kinds of discrimination that we have suffered in our own lives. But that if they do suffer it, they’ll be strong and they’ll fight back. We are no longer asking for charity. We are demanding our rights!”

This letter gets us a step closer to seeing those rights realized. Melody, it has been an honor to work with you, Michael, Sue, Claudia and all the other folks at the Department and elsewhere in getting to this day. Thank you for your hard work on behalf of students with disabilities.

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