Complaint: District fails to address bullying of disabled students

In a filing with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, the Education Law Center says that the students are being denied their right to a free and appropriate education.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

UPDATED 3:45 with expanded District response

Bullying of disabled students in the Philadelphia schools is "pervasive and severe," and the District fails miserably in addressing the incidents, according to a complaint that the Education Law Center filed Thursday with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights.

The 30-page complaint details incidents such as special education students being pushed down stairs, kicked and punched, and called names like "retard" and "idiot," usually without consequence for their bullies. As a result, the complaint alleges, students who once loved school "cried, shook, and begged not to go to school." Parents who sought transfers were refused, the complaint alleges.

Special education students are more likely to be bullied than others, according to research cited in the complaint. The District’s behavior constitutes discrimination and is depriving these students of their rights under federal law to a free and appropriate public education, said ELC senior attorney Maura McInerney.

District spokesman Lee Whack issued this response via email: "While we cannot comment on pending legal complaints, as a District, we actively and consistently investigate and address instances of bullying that are reported. If a child is ever harmed we act with urgency to remedy the situation. The safety of all students is our first priority."

The complaint was made on behalf of one parent and names several students but also seeks general relief, including new policies and expanded training of staff. It also seeks individual relief for the students specifically cited.

"What we are asking is that the School District do training on how to conduct a bullying investigation of students with disabilities … to address their unique needs," McInerney said.

Under two federal statutes relating to education for those with disabilities, a school is obligated to consider the student’s disability in responding to bullying by convening teams to determine how their Individualized Education Program (IEP) might be affected. That doesn’t seem to be happening in the District, according to the complaint.

None of the District’s official policies on how to respond to bullying and harassment address that, said Alex Dutton, Independence Fellow at ELC.

"As a result, students are not receiving supports or accommodations to overcome the effects of bullying or to succeed in school when bullying occurs," Dutton said.

The main student in the complaint is a 4th grader who was repeatedly attacked physically and verbally and who eventually refused to attend school. The parent sought a transfer to another school and went up the chain of command all the way to Superintendent William Hite, to no avail, according to the complaint.

The student "often refused to get out of the car — he cried and held onto the seat, begging PARENT not to make him go to that school. STUDENT did not have any attendance issues prior to this time, and seemed to enjoy school, as reported by PARENT and reflected in STUDENT’s special education records. On several occasions, Principal XX and other SCHOOL staff witnessed this behavior, but did not intervene or offer support," the complaint said. When the parent filed an official bullying complaint at District headquarters, it was not investigated. When the parent finally got a meeting of higher-ups, the student had already missed 90 days of school.

By that time, his main tormentors were no longer at the school, so the District’s response was essentially to do nothing, the complaint alleges. When officials finally did take action, it was to threaten the parent with truancy court. The student eventually went back to school, but the bullying continued, and the District conducted inadequate investigations, the complaint said. Only after the parent got legal representation from ELC did the school convene the student’s IEP team to formulate a plan – a year after the original bullying complaint. Officials continued to deny that bullying had occurred, and the plan, which involved frequent check-ins with the student during the day, was not properly carried out, the complaint alleges.

Ultimately, the parent moved to another neighborhood and is sending the child to another school where he is doing well, without facing bullying.

The complaint includes names, but the names were redacted in the version that was made public.

In another incident, a student diagnosed with conditions including Asperger’s syndrome and post-traumatic stress disorder was kicked in the groin by a peer. After complaining to a teacher, he was told: “Leave it alone and it would get better within an hour.” However, when the student told his parent what happened, she examined the area, discovered swelling, and took him to the hospital.

The bullying continued, and having developed vomit-inducing anxiety before going to school, the student’s absences increased. Instead of “convening his IEP team to discuss the absences, the school referred the student and his mother to truancy court,” the complaint alleges.

These experiences "are not unique, but rather are emblematic of systemic harm that has impacted many students with disabilities across the District," the complaint says. "During the 2016-17 school year, ELC heard from an increasing number of parents about severe and pervasive bullying of students with disabilities at different schools in the District. More so than in past years, parents have repeatedly complained that their attempts to advocate for a resolution to the bullying of their child were unaddressed at all levels — by both local schools and the District."

The complaint details several more incidents in support of its argument that the District’s "utter failure" to respond adequately when special education students are bullied is systemic.

Notebook writer Darryl Murphy contributed to this story.