Bullying is, unfortunately, nothing new but it is receiving more attention than in past generations. If you are the parent of a Massachusetts student being bullied, you should understand your rights and options.
Bullying encompasses many behaviors, many of which were not even around not long ago. Bullying is a big deal and has the potential to be more of a problem with a greater reach than in the days before social media. Two key points to consider are :
- Bullying appears to cause negative, lifelong effects;
- Opportunities to bully have been amplified by the abundance of technology and social media.
Massachusetts Laws About Bullying
As the topic of bullying has become more prominent over the past decade, so has its presence in the law.
Many states have passed laws addressing bullying in schools. Here in Massachusetts, the legislature has developed regulations outlining in-depth steps that must be taken by school districts to prevent and respond to bullying.
Under Massachusetts law, schools are required to have anti-bullying policies and procedures in place and create materials that educate parents and students on bullying. These regulations also address the significance of “vulnerable” students with regard to bullying. The term vulnerable includes children with disabilities. Thus, there has been significant legal progress regarding the response to bullying in schools.
Unfortunately, these statutes do not serve as a magical shield to stop all bullying behavior from other students. Despite the surge in discussions and mandated rules and responses around bullying, it still occurs. In some cases, children with disabilities are the target. When a disability hinders a child’s ability to communicate socially or causes the child to behave in a distracting manner, the child is at a higher risk of being bullied. While discussions and statutes around bullying are helpful, it is important to be realistic about the possibility of your child being bullied, particularly when a child has disabilities.
In Massachusetts, anti-bullying statutes are located in Mass. Gen. Laws. c. 71 § 370. The statutes went into effect in 2010 and were revised in 2014. These statutes explicitly define bullying and where and how it may occur, and identify steps that Massachusetts schools must take to address it. For instance, the term “cyberbullying” is defined and a list of individuals who may be found as “perpetrators” of bullying includes students and staff members. The statutes also mandate schools to create in-depth bullying plans that address the response to and reporting of bullying.
Included in the 2014 revisions to these rules was the requirement that schools recognize the risk of bullying for vulnerable categories of students, including students with disabilities. Specifically, schools must provide supports to these students that both teach them about and provide strategies on responses to bullying. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) ensures schools’ compliance with these rules and the DESE website contains materials that may assist schools and parents in understanding and implementing these rules.
Despite the reality that bullying isn’t going away, bullying laws allow some parents to proactively address the possibility of bullying. When a child with disabilities is receiving special education services under a Individualized Education Plan (IEP), parents have the right to collaborate with their child’s educators to incorporate responses about bullying into the IEP. With the help of a knowledgeable Massachusetts school attorney, parents can help protect their student from bullying in a manner that is specific to the student’s individual needs.
Should You Hire a School or Special Education Attorney to help?
In some circumstances, parents decide to hire a lawyer to help protect their child’s interests and to address either the potential for or the existence of bullying of a child with or without disabilities. Of course, not all cases of bullying may require the involvement of a lawyer, but if the situation worsens or continues, consulting with a local school and special education attorney is a good idea. When hiring a school lawyer, consider the following:
1. Does the attorney have experience working with and understanding disabilities that specifically tend to attract bullying behavior?
2. Does the Massachusetts school or special education lawyer have the skills to help identify services that will help prevent bullying for the child?
3. Does the attorney have the skills to effectively incorporate bullying prevention strategies into an IEP?
At Next Phase Legal & Dispute Resolution LLC our education attorney and advocate, Francesca Korbas, Esq. supports individuals with disabilities, particularly children. With in-depth knowledge of the disabilities that may evoke bullying behavior in other students, she works closely with parents to incorporate a child’s specific needs regarding bullying into their IEP. Next Phase Legal provides a variety of unique, specialized services related to the special education process.
Should you decide you need some assistance, please contact our office to set up a confidential initial consultation, or to learn more about how we can help. A brief (about 15 minutes) complimentary telephone call is always an option if you prefer to chat prior to scheduling an in-person or online/telephone meeting. We are located in Norfolk, MA, but serve students and their families throughout Massachusetts through the wonders of video-conferencing and our online client portal!
Finally, check out another helpful website about bullying run by the US Department of Health and Human Services: StopBullying.gov