At a glance
Kids have legal protections against bullying at school.
State and federal laws address bullying in different ways.
Federal laws offer specific protections that can benefit kids with learning and thinking differences.
It’s a sad fact that kids with learning and thinking differences are more likely to be bullied at school than other kids. And bullying can have a serious impact. It can damage everything from kids’ self-confidence to their academics. Fortunately, kids have legal protections that require schools to act when kids are bullied.
Here’s a breakdown of how the law protects your child against bullying.
State anti-bullying laws
If your child is being bullied at school, the first line of defense is your state’s anti-bullying law. All 50 states have anti-bullying laws. These laws often have the strongest protections for students. And they can help put an immediate stop to the bullying.
A typical state anti-bullying law requires a school to report, document and investigate bullying within a specific number of days. It also requires the school to take action to stop it. Many state laws list consequences for bullies. Some have a process for offering services like counseling to the victim and the bully.
It’s also important to look at your school’s code of conduct and to read your school’s bullying policy. School anti-bullying policies round out the protections offered by state law.
As you look at your state law (and school policy), here are important questions to ask:
- How does the law define bullying?
- Are there examples of bullying listed in the law?
- Does the law cover cyberbullying or bullying outside of school hours?
- How do you report bullying?
- Does the law require the school to report bullying?
- Is there a timeline for the school to investigate bullying?
- Is there a timeline for the school to take action to stop bullying?
- What penalties does the law have for bullies?
- What happens under the law if the school can’t or won’t stop the bullying?
- Does the law require the school to train its staff to stop and prevent bullying?
- What services are available if your child is bullied?
Federal anti-bullying protections
When it comes to bullying, state law typically has stricter timelines and protections than federal law. But federal laws offer specific protections that can benefit kids with learning and thinking differences:
- The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees kids with the right to a free appropriate public education (FAPE). IDEA requires a school to act if bullying interferes with a child’s FAPE.
- Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 also guarantees kids the right to FAPE. Kids with are covered by Section 504. If bullying interferes with FAPE for a child with a 504 plan, the school must act.
- Section 504 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) both prohibit discrimination at school against kids with disabilities, which can include kids with learning and thinking differences. When kids are bullied because they have a disability, the school must act.
The differences in how federal laws may protect your child can be confusing. It boils down to two key situations:
- Bullying that leads to a child being denied FAPE: If a child is bullied for any reason, and the bullying interferes with a child’s FAPE, the school must act. Kids with IEPs and 504 plans are covered.
- Bullying that’s based on a child’s disability: If the bullying causes a “hostile environment” — meaning the bullying is serious enough to cause the child not to participate in some aspect at school — the school must act. Any child with a disability is covered.
Here are some example scenarios.
Example of bullying that denies a child’s FAPE: A child with has an IEP and receives specialized reading instruction. Other kids start making fun of him because his family is low-income. The bullying makes the child feel ashamed. As a result, he stops coming to school and doesn’t see the reading specialist. The child isn’t being bullied because of his dyslexia. But the bullying is interfering with his FAPE.
How the school must respond: Once the school knows that bullying is impacting FAPE, they must take steps to stop the bullying. They must also take steps to prevent the bullying from happening again. The school must call an IEP meeting to talk about how the bullying has impacted his education. The team must discuss whether he needs additional services to remedy the bullying, like counseling. As a parent, you have the right to be at this meeting.
The process is similar with a 504 plan. The school must determine how bullying has impacted the child’s education and consider whether more supports are needed.
It’s important, however, to not just rely on the school. If you believe bullying is affecting your child’s education, ask for an IEP or 504 plan meeting.
Example of bullying based on a child’s disability: A child with dyslexia doesn’t have any IEP or 504 plan. But when she reads aloud in class, she does so slowly and with difficulty. Other kids make fun of her for this and call her names. As a result, she becomes withdrawn and tries to avoid situations where she’s called on to read. This creates a “hostile environment” for the child at school.
How the school must respond: Once school staff knows about the bullying, they must stop it and prevent it from happening again.
In some cases, bullying based on a disability may also lead to a denial of FAPE. When that happens, the school must not only stop the bullying. It also has to call an IEP or 504 plan meeting to discuss how services have been impacted.
(To see more examples and to learn more about federal law, see this PDF of bullying guidance from the U.S. Department of Education.)
When bullying laws are tricky
On paper, laws against bullying are clear. In practice, though, they can be tricky.
When schools have to investigate bullying is a tricky area. The law says that if the school knows about bullying, it must act. But what if there’s no formal complaint?
According to federal and most state laws, if a school even suspects bullying, it must investigate. For instance, if a teacher sees kids making fun of another child because she can’t read, the teacher must report it. The school must look into the situation, even if the child hasn’t said anything.
Another tricky area? What officially counts as bullying. Not all conflict is bullying. And there can be a difference between bullying and teasing. So how does a school decide if something is severe enough to count as bullying?
In this case, a school should look at the definition and examples of bullying in its state anti-bullying law. In general, state laws have broad definitions that cover many kinds of unwanted, aggressive behavior. So you may disagree with the school about whether something is bullying. If that happens, let the school know in writing why you disagree.
Federal law is narrower. There’s no black-and-white rule in federal law to decide whether bullying is serious enough to affect a child’s education.
So schools are required to look at several factors, including:
- A decline in grades
- Emotional outbursts
- Behavioral issues
- Skipping services provided in an IEP or a 504 plan
- School avoidance
- Avoiding extracurricular activities that the child likes
How schools can stop and prevent bullying
What exactly is a school supposed to do to prevent or stop bullying? There’s no “one size fits all” or simple solution to stop and prevent bullying. But there are some best practices. These include:
- Disciplining kids who bully others
- Counseling or providing other services for kids who bully others
- Having adult supervision, especially in common areas like hallways, cafeterias, and playgrounds
- Providing teacher and staff training on what bullying behavior looks like and how to respond
- Providing formalized and explicit instruction for students on what behaviors are expected at school
Keep in mind that stopping bullying can’t be at the expense of the victim. That means that if changes are made at school, the changes can’t burden the child who’s being bullied. For example, the school can’t move a bullied child into a more restrictive environment to limit contact with the bully.
Sometimes bullies have disabilities, too. How does the school deal with this situation?
If a child who bullies has a disability, the child may have legal protections against school discipline. This doesn’t excuse the school from stopping the bullying. But these protections are aimed at understanding why the behavior is happening and preventing it in the future.
What to do if your child is bullied
It can be hard to know what action to take if your child is bullied. How can you make sure that the school acts to protect your child?
First, it’s crucial to document the bullying. Find out what happened, so you can see what laws might apply. It’s also important to make a complaint to the school in an email or letter. Stating in writing what you believe happened can help you protect your child’s rights.
Documenting the impact on your child is also key. For instance, is your child reluctant to go to school because of the bullying? Does your child feel more emotional and less able to pay attention? Help the school understand how the bullying is affecting your child’s education, so it’s compelled to take action.
Explore steps to take if you suspect bullying at school. And get tips on how to help kids defend themselves against bullies at school.
Every state has an anti-bullying law that can help put an immediate stop to bullying.
Kids who are bullied because of their disabilities have additional protections under federal law.
If your child is bullied, document what happened and how it affected your child.
About the author
About the author
Kate Kelly has been writing and editing for more than 20 years, with a focus on parenting.
Robert Tudisco, JD is a practicing attorney in the areas of education law, disability advocacy, and criminal law.