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When Disabled Students Bully Other Disabled Students

Students with disabilities are more likely to be bullied than their nondisabled peers, volumes of research shows. But in many instances, those perpetrating the bullying are also special education students.

“This trend of disabled student on disabled student bullying is not as well-known, but it is a challenge that must be addressed by schools across the country,” said Christine Villani, professor of elementary education at Southern and the school’s graduate coordinator.

She is a co-author of a paper that is scheduled to be published in the Brigham Young University Education and Law Journal. The article was co-written with Cynthia Dieterich, assistant professor of teaching education at Cleveland State University, and Nicole Snyder, a Pennsylvania attorney who specializes in education law.

Villani said curbing bullying by disabled students can present particular difficulties. While typical students are generally aware when they are bullying others, students with disabilities often are not.

“The bullying is sometimes a manifestation of their disability, so their culpability is reduced, if it exists at all. Sometimes, the bullying itself is an act of impulsiveness, or stems from an inability to respond to a stressful situation properly. Schools need to work with these students to help them understand why the behavior is unacceptable, and at the same time, work to prevent this from happening and prevent them from being bullied.”

In her paper, Villani recommends several steps that schools can take, including notifying and working with parents of the students engaging in bullying or being bullied; teaching special education students the skills they need to avoid bullying or being bullied, using the best education tools available; and most important, fostering the development of social skills among special education students.

“In many instances, students with disabilities lack the degree of social skills that other students have,” Villani said. “But students who are able to develop these skills are less likely to bully someone else, or be bullied themselves.”

Villani said that having those skills is even more important for special education students after they finish school and begin “real life.” “That’s when having social skills is imperative,” she said.


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