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Education Law Center Challenges School District of Philadelphia’s Failure to Address Severe Bullying of Students with Disabilities

PHILADELPHIA, PA (July 27) Yesterday, the Education Law Center-PA (“ELC”) filed a Complaint with the United States Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (“OCR”) alleging a systemic failure by the School District of Philadelphia (“District”) to promptly and appropriately address pervasive and severe bullying of students with disabilities.
“Sadly, students with disabilities are far more likely to experience bullying in school than their non-disabled peers,” said Alex Dutton, Independence Fellow at the Education Law Center. “Under federal law, these students are entitled to an educational program that enables them to make meaningful progress in school. Bullying of a student with a disability on any basis may interfere with this critical right, and school districts must promptly and appropriately address it.”
“The District’s failure to address bullying denies students with disabilities access to equal educational opportunities and is therefore discriminatory,” said ELC Senior Attorney Maura McInerney.
The Complaint alleges that in some cases, the District failed to respond to parents’ complaints about bullying for months and even years.
In one case, a third-grade child with disabilities was kicked and punched by classmates, causing a concussion, and repeatedly called derogatory names like “retard” and “dumb.”
Another nine-year-old child was repeatedly called “idiot” and “stupid” by her classmates, who told her they hoped she never came back to class.
The Complaint details how children who once loved school cried, shook, and begged not to go to school following months of pervasive bullying. Some of these parents asked the District to transfer their children to new schools, away from the bullying, but the District refused.
“What we see is that parents, having tried for months to get the District to do something, make the rational choice to keep their children home on days when they are demonstrating extreme aversion to school,” Dutton said. “Rather than intervene in accordance with federal anti-discrimination laws, the District’s response was to refer these families to Truancy Court, where the problem is framed as a failure of the family. This is not only discriminatory, it erodes any semblance of trust between District staff and the families they serve.”
Attorneys for the parents hope that the Complaint will result in the implementation of new District policies and training to ensure school staff promptly and properly intervene to resolve bullying of students with disabilities in an appropriate, non-discriminatory manner. ELC is also seeking individual relief for the named students.
The students in this Complaint are represented by ELC attorneys Alex Dutton and Maura McInerney. More information about the case and a link to download a copy of the Complaint are here.
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The Education Law Center-PA (“ELC”) is a non-profit, legal advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that all children in Pennsylvania have access to a quality public education. Through legal representation, impact litigation, trainings, and policy advocacy, ELC advances the rights of vulnerable children, including children living in poverty, children of color, children in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, children with disabilities, English language learners, LGBTQ/NGC students, and children experiencing homelessness. For more information visit https://elc-pa.org/ or follow on Twitter @edlawcenterpa.

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