In a decision issued July 24, 2014, Senior United States District Court Judge Jack Weinstein has authored an opinion proposing a new standard for evaluating whether the IEP of a special education student who has experienced bullying provides that student with a free appropriate public education (FAPE).  In T.K. v. New York City Dept. of Educ., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 101277 (E.D.N.Y. 7/24/14), Judge Weinstein offered that there is a new “FAPE Bullying Standard”: “a disabled student is deprived of FAPE when school personnel are deliberately indifferent to or fail to take reasonable steps to prevent bullying that substantially restricts a child with learning disabilities in her educational opportunities.”  The opinion clarifies that the conduct “does not need to be outrageous in order to be considered a deprivation of rights of a disabled student.  It must, however, be sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive that it creates a hostile environment.”  Furthermore, the “rule does not require that the bullying would have prevented all opportunity for an appropriate education, only that it was likely to affect the opportunity of the student for an appropriate education.”

Those of us representing school districts have been concerned since the issuance of the U.S. Department of Education’s Dear Colleague Letter on August 20, 2013 admonishing school districts to reconvene IEP team’s to review a disabled student’s IEP if the student is determined to have been affected by bullying, that this would impose new requirements on IEP teams that they may not be prepared to address.  This opinion seems to be the culmination of those concerns.

The allegations in the T.K. case were that the student, L.K., was placed in a New York City Collaborative Team Teaching (CTT) classroom at P.S. 6, containing both general education and special education students.  She alleged that she was intentionally “pinched, bruised and injured” by another child in her class during the lunch period.  The opinion faults the school’s response to the allegations, stating that the principal failed to investigate adequately and inform the parents about actions taken to resolve the problem.  The following year, it was alleged that this same student “stomped” on L.K.’s toes.  There was no way to separate the two students because they were both special needs students requiring the same classroom, and there was only one such classroom available in the school.  That year, L.K. complained daily to her parents about being bullied and resisted attending school, resulting in multiple tardies and absences. According to the opinion, the teachers in the classroom confirmed that L.K. was bullied by the other students and that the classroom was a “hostile environment” for her.

It does not appear that any specific IEP team meetings were convened to address this situation for L.K., and when the annual review meeting was held that spring and the parents attempted to raise the issue of bullying and how it was going to be addressed, the opinion states that the parents were told that was not an appropriate subject for the IEP team to address and that it would not be discussed.  This, the court found, denied the parents a meaningful opportunity to participate in the educational process.

The court further found fault with the fact that the present levels of academic and functional performance on the child’s IEP failed to reflect that she had been a victim of bullying, and instead focused on the child’s “sensitivity” and need to improve her communication skills.  Although the student had goals and a behavior intervention plan (BIP) that addressed her interfering behaviors, which would in turn, the staff contended, reduce her vulnerability to bullying by peers, the court deemed these measures insufficient. “Where there is a substantial probability that bullying will severely restrict a disabled student’s educational opportunities, as a matter of law an anti-bullying program is required to be included in the IEP.” (Emphasis added.)

There is just one problem: IDEA does not say that, and neither do its implementing regulations.  There is nothing in IDEA that tells schools what an “anti-bullying program” is for purposes of a child’s IEP.  While certainly no one would advocate that leaving a child who is being bullied in an untenable situation is an acceptable educational outcome, the IEP is designed to focus on the measurable outcomes that will be achieved in that child’s skills and abilities over the course of the next school year, not to regulate the conduct of other children around them.  As most states do, Connecticut has a robust anti-bullying statute which gets further refined seemingly each year by the legislature, and school districts are required to take steps to improve school climate for all students, investigate and address bullying and other mean-spirited behavior when it does occu, and make sure that every child has the opportunity to attend school in a safe and healthy learning environment.  A safety plan is required for any child who is the victim of a verified incident of bullying.  That’s not the problem.  The problem is, how do we go about including this in a child’s IEP and is it appropriate to do so?

The opinion does not answer this question.  It criticizes the department of education for “blaming the victim” by focusing on goals and objectives to improve the child’s measurable outcomes.  It seems to imply that the IEP perhaps should have focused more on changing the setting in which the child was being educated to remove her from being the target of the other students, which perhaps would have resolved the situation.  But, IDEA makes a distinction between a “placement” and a “location” for a child’s educational program.  The “placement” needed by L.K. was the CTT classroom.  The district was not required to specify that the location of the CTT classroom would have been changed to remove L.K. from the bullies, even if that was the intent of the school officials. But in the absence of an “anti-bullying program” in L.K.’s IEP, this court decided that the parents were entitled to reimbursement for their unilateral private school placement.

It’s hard to imagine that the New York City Department of Education isn’t preparing their papers for the appeal as we speak.  Leaving that aside, however, forewarned is forearmed.  It is clear that we need to pay attention to our obligations under both the anti-bullying statutes and the Dear Colleague Letter and ensure that IEP teams are addressing the unique needs of children with disabilities who are being bullied by their classmates. And, when it comes down to it, we just need to make schools a safe place to learn.