About 49 percent of children in grades four through 12 — or half — report being bullied by other students at school at least once during the past month, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And, the CDC reports, children with special needs are at higher risk of being targeted.

But Ellen Callegary has good news for parents: you have rights. The former Maryland assistant attorney general spent 10 years in that office addressing issues related to people with disabilities. 

“There is case law that deals with bullying,” Callegary said. “It says bullying can be a denial of free and public education.” And a free and public education is every child’s legal right.

Callegary offers this plan to parents whose child is being bullied:

Assess your child

“Many of my clients have a mental health provider, and if they have one, get the child into a therapy session ASAP,” Callegary said. “Obviously, if there’s an injury — some of my clients have gotten injured — take them to a pediatrician or the ER or urgent care.”

But sometimes bullying can be silent, Callegary said. Parents of elementary schoolers should pay attention to behaviors such as begging to stay home from school with complaints such as stomach aches and headaches. Without an underlying medical condition, “that’s another red flag.”

Communicate with the school in writing and in detail

“Immediately call the school. Talk to the principal and talk to the teachers,” Callegary said. 

She advises parents to “follow up in writing, with an email” to everyone on your child’s team. Be as specific as possible, giving your child’s description of the events and your observations of their reaction. Then, Callegary said, ask them immediately what they’re going to do.

Don’t exaggerate, but don’t let your concerns be diminished either. Callegary said teachers sometimes have trouble believing the bullying is happening.

Paperwork: spread it around

“Once your child is stabilized and you’re convinced the environment is safe, the next thing you’ll want to do is fill out the bullying harassment form and get that to multiple people,” Callegary said. That includes principals, the case manager and teachers. 

Make a safety plan

Next, convene your child’s educational team to “make revisions to the Individualized Education Plan or put together a safety plan that’s separate from the IEP.” Adults need to know they are designated as part of the safety plan. For example, she said, if a teacher is going to be in the locker room, it needs to be in writing that the teacher’s responsibility is to keep an eye on your child. But observation doesn’t have to — and shouldn’t — be intrusive. 

Seek advice if you need it

If you aren’t getting to a place you need to be, get legal advice, Callegary said. The vast majority of the cases she handles find resolution through IEP team meetings or other communication. But if a case can’t be resolved through that process, she seeks mediation for a family. JN

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