In a recent special education due process hearing decision, the Office of Administrative Hearings held that a school district denied a student a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) by failing to address allegations of bullying in an IEP meeting. Colton Unified School District (OAH No. 2017060750).
In this case, the parents complained multiple times to the school that their kindergartner with autism and a speech and language impairment was being bullied. The parents had reportedly observed other children taunting their son and excluding him from activities and had witnessed him coming home with unexplained injuries. Parents raised these concerns at an IEP meeting and suggested that the bullying may be the result of the student’s lack of social skills for which a behavioral aide might be warranted. In response, the school district informed the parents that there was a district bullying complaint form they could fill out. No further discussion occurred at the IEP meeting regarding the alleged bullying.
The hearing officer determined that the district denied the student FAPE by failing to address the reported bullying. The hearing officer explained that formal procedures for investigating bullying are separate from the IEP team’s obligations to address the impact of bullying on FAPE. Moreover, it did not matter that the reports of bullying were disbelieved or that the team felt the claims were better handled by the school’s discipline process. Instead, the IEP team should have at least discussed the parents’ concerns, documented the conversation, and determined the impact, if any, on a student’s receipt of FAPE.
IEP teams need to know that bullying of a student with a disability on any basis can result in a denial of FAPE. When investigating whether a student with disabilities who was bullied was denied FAPE, the Office of Civil Rights considers several factors, including, but not limited to:
1. Did the school know or should it have known that the effects of the bullying may have affected the student’s receipt of IDEA or Section 504 services? For example, did the school know, or should it have known, about adverse changes in the student’s academic performance or behavior indicating that the student may not be receiving FAPE?
2. Did the school meet its ongoing obligation to ensure FAPE by promptly determining whether the student’s educational needs were still being met, and if not, make changes, as necessary, to his or her IEP or Section 504 plan?
Ensuring that IEP and Section 504 teams adequately address bullying or harassment of a student with a disability will minimize potential liability under a variety of federal statutes, including the IDEA, Section 504, the ADA, and Section 1983, as well as under state law.