Recently, a Seattle student with cerebral palsy was awarded $300,000 in damages from her school after years of harassment by another student was allowed to take place. Her harasser regularly called her names, blocked her wheelchair's path with furniture and manipulated her chair's electronic controls so it rammed into walls. It was not until the harasser caused his target serious physical injury and property damage that school officials responded formatively to his hostility by suspending him for three days.
The parent of the disabled student filed a lawsuit against the harasser and his family, which was settled out of court. She filed another against school officials for negligent supervision, claiming her daughter suffered emotional distress and physical harm because school personnel failed to protect her child from harassment. The U.S. District Court agreed.
The school took so long to recognize the situation because the harasser was a class leader, well liked and respected. Simply put, the student with cerebral palsy had a hard time convincing school officials that such a popular student was harassing her. Clearly, this case shows school personnel that anyone can be a harasser.
The Seattle case is significant in several more ways. First, it shines light on a growing problem in schools and colleges - harassment based on disabilities. Second, it sends a message that this problem will no longer be tolerated. Third, it gives encouragement to disabled students who might want to legally challenge their harassers and school personnel who tolerate such mistreatment.
As the liability and special education expert who worked on the Seattle case (Haugstad v. Stanwood-Camano School District) and similar lawsuits, I have seen the emotional and academic damage to students facing verbal and physical harassment because of their disabilities, sexual orientation, ethnicity or appearance.
Disabled or not, students facing harassers can become quiet and withdrawn. Their self-esteem can deteriorate making them even more vulnerable. Often students spend time and energy protecting themselves from harmful harassers when they should be free to just focus on learning. In extreme cases, particularly those regarding sexual orientation, a small percentage of students tragically consider, attempt and commit suicide.
The US Department of Education calls disability harassment a "very serious problem" that can have a "profound impact on students, raise safety concerns, and erode efforts to ensure that students with disabilities have equal access to the myriad benefits that an education offers." Citing the steady rise in the number of complaints and lawsuits, the agency says "harassment can seriously interfere with the ability of students with disabilities to receive the education critical to their advancement."
At least 12% of the school population includes students with physical or learning disabilities. In the average classroom, there can be three or four students who fit this description. Unfortunately, most teachers are not trained effectively to teach or develop educational programs for students with disabilities.
To provide all students with proper learning environments and protect themselves from costly litigation, school personnel must help prevent and diligently respond to disability harassment. No longer can bullies be allowed to intimidate or ridicule with cruel names or harmful pranks. No longer can administrators and teachers look the other way dismissing such activities as kids being kids.
On the frontline of all classroom issues, teachers need to help prevent harassment through a diversity-based curriculum that enlightens students about the wonders of our differences. When hostile situations arise, teachers need to assess their potential for dangerousness carefully and act as appropriate, yet decisive disciplinarians who do not tolerate harassment. School administrators need to back up teachers with harassment and diversity training, solid no-tolerance policies and specific problem-solving protocols. Moreover, everyone in the school community needs be dedicated to providing a welcoming environment for all students.
Not only is this the right thing to do; it's the law. Disability harassment breaks federal laws including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Rehabilitation Act. Harassment also has the potential to break state and local civil rights, child abuse and criminal laws. Resulting lawsuits have the potential to cost schools and taxpayers considerably in legal fees and settlements. Litigation also causes teachers and students to lose valuable class time.
Teachers and schools play important roles in the character development of our nation's children. Understanding and tolerance of diversity is essential to the creation of a compassionate civilized society. By protecting disabled students, schools will send a message of acceptance for all students, no matter what their differences. In essence, when we protect the liberties of one group, we protect the liberties of all.
Dr. Edward Dragan, provides education expert consultation for high-profile and complicated cases. As an educator and administrator, he has more than 35 years' experience as a teacher, principal, superintendent and director of special education. He also has served as a state department of education official.
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