From the San Mateo County Times:
BURLINGAME, Calif. -- A nationwide campaign is under way to combat the bullying of special-needs students, a problem that advocates for disabled children describe as being widespread but having largely gone unaddressed.
"This is a silent epidemic ... because it's a problem most people don't know we have," said Timothy Shriver, chairman and CEO for the Special Olympics. "We're trying to awaken the country now that there is an epidemic."
Spearheading that effort is AbilityPath.org, a Burlingame-based, online special-needs advocacy group. In collaboration with the Special Olympics and Best Buddies International, AbilityPath has launched its "Disable Bullying" campaign, seeking to engage a broad coalition of parents, educators, activists and policymakers across the nation to prevent attacks against students with disabilities.
On Tuesday, AbilityPath issued a 65-page report titled "Walk a Mile in Their Shoes" that documents how serious the problem is and provides measures to tackle it.
"We're stunned with the number of incidents and horrified and shocked with the stories that we've heard," said Sheryl Young, CEO of AbilityPath, a creation of Community Gatepath, a nonprofit organization that has been serving individuals with disabilities for more than 90 years in San Mateo County.
The stories include a boy being tied to a flagpole and another child being forced to eat dog food, Young said.
According to the report, research shows that American children with disabilities are two to three times more likely to be victims of bullying than their able-bodied peers. The bullying ranges from verbal and physical abuse to online hostility and social isolation, the report says.
One reason why this kind of bullying has been mostly unnoticed is that many adults don't realize it's a problem, Shriver said. "When adults don't find it a problem, schools don't find it a problem."
One way to address bullying is through a special-needs child's individualized education plan, which details the instructional program and other services needed for that student, the report says. The plan can include a goal for the student to participate in a social-skills group to help him or her develop friendships and foster a sense of belonging.
Parents can also do their part. Parents whose children have been bullied can organize and take their concerns to their school board, the report states. In addition, they should also become familiar with laws and policies that protect disabled students.
In October, the U.S. Department of Education sent out letters to schools, colleges and universities reminding them that tolerating or failing to adequately address ethnic, sexual, gender or disability-based harassment could put them in violation of federal anti-discrimination laws.
Elected leaders are pledging to help increase awareness of the bullying experienced by students with disabilities.
"Lawmakers, parents and educators need to be made aware of the resources contained in this valuable report," said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Hillsborough, who plans to brief her fellow members of Congress on the issues. "I'm committed to do what I can."
California schools chief Tom Torlakson said he wants to work with legislators on ways to incorporate special-needs concerns into existing anti-bullying legislation.
Susan Switzer, a special-education teacher in Daly City, applauded AbilityPath's campaign. "It's a good thing," Switzer said. "I don't think anybody should be bullied."
One of Switzer's learning-disabled students, 21-year-old Melanie Flores, has experienced bullying.
"Other students were mean to me ... I guess because I was doing things in different ways," Flores said. "It made me really mad when they did something like that."