bullying and youth with disabilities and special health needs
​by Kim T. Roe, Advocacy & Outreach Coordinator, Community Partners Department

What is Bullying?

Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children. It involves a real or perceived 
power imbalance and the behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.
Children with disabilities—such as physical, developmental, intellectual, emotional and sensory disabilities—are at an increased risk of being bullied. Any number of factors— physical
vulnerability, social skill challenges or intolerant environments—may increase the risk. Research 
suggests that some children with disabilities may bully others as well. 

Children with special health needs, such as epilepsy or food allergies, also may be at higher risk of being bullied. Bullying can include making fun of children because of their allergies or exposing them to the things they are allergic to. In these cases, bullying is not just serious, it can mean life or death.

Creating a Safe Environment for Youth with Disabilities

Special considerations are needed when addressing bullying of youth with disabilities. There are
resources to help children with disabilities who are bullied or who bully others. Youth with disabilities
often have Individualized Education Programs​ (IEPs) or Section 504 plans that can be useful in
crafting specialized approaches for preventing and responding to bullying. 

These plans can provide additional services that may be necessary. Additionally, civil rights laws protect students with disabilities against harassment. Creating a Safe Environment for Youth with Special Health Needs Youth with special health needs—such as diabetes requiring insulin regulation, food allergies, or youth with epilepsy— may require accommodations at school. In these cases they do not require an Individualized Education Program or Section 504 plan. However, schools should protect students with special health needs from bullying and related dangers. 

If a child with special health needs has a medical reaction, teachers should address the medical situation first before responding to the bullying. Educating both students and teachers about the child’s special health needs and the dangers associated with certain actions and exposures can help keep the child safe. 

Federal Civil Rights Laws and Youth with Disabilities

When bullying is directed at a child because of his or her established disability and it creates a hostile
environment at school, bullying behavior may cross the line and become “disability harassment.” Under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with
Disabilities Act of 1990, the school must address the harassment. Read more about federal civil

Additional Resources
Bullying and Children and Youth with Disabilities and Special Health Needs Tip Sheet -

Signs a Child is Being Bullied
Look for changes in the child. However, be aware that not all children who are bullied exhibit warning signs.Some signs that may point to a bullying problem are:

• Unexplainable injuries
• Lost or destroyed clothing, books, electronics, or jewelry
• Frequent headaches or stomach aches, feeling sick or faking illness
• Changes in eating habits, like suddenly skipping meals or binge eating. Children may come home from school hungry because they did not eat lunch
• Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares
• Declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork or not wanting to go to school
• Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations
• Feelings of helplessness or decreased self-esteem
• Self-destructive behaviors such as running away from home, harming themselves or talking about suicide
If you know someone in serious distress or danger, don’t ignore the problem. Get help right away -

Signs a Child is Bullying Others

Children may be bullying others if they:
• Get into physical or verbal fights
• Have friends who bully others
• Are increasingly aggressive
• Get sent to the principal’s office or to detention frequently
• Have unexplained extra money or new belongings
• Blame others for their problems
• Don’t accept responsibility for their actions
• Are competitive and worry about their reputation or p​opularity

References: www.samsha.gov