Philly schools failing to prevent bullying of disabled students, complaint alleges

 (NewsWorks file photo)

(NewsWorks file photo)

The School District of Philadelphia has systematically failed to investigate or intervene when students bully their disabled peers, according to a federal complaint filed Wednesday by the Education Law Center.

The complaint claims disabled students in Philadelphia have been harmed physically, emotionally, and educationally by the district’s alleged inaction. The allegation of educational harm matters most here, because it raises the possibility district officials failed to comply with a federal law that mandates they provide disabled students with a free and appropriate public education.

“In very real ways their education was impacted and their ability to make educational progress was impacted by, not only the bullying, but also by the school’s failure to appropriately respond in a timely manner,” said Alex Dutton of the Education Law Center.

A spokesperson for the district said it could not respond to an open complaint.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“While we cannot comment on pending legal complaints, as a district, we actively and consistently investigate and address instances of bullying that are reported. If a child is ever harmed we act with urgency to remedy the situation,” said Lee Whack in an e-mail.

The complaint, which was filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, details four cases where bullies repeatedly tormented students with disabilities. In the cases chronicled, district staff–from teachers all the way up to central administration–failed to address parent concerns.

Bullies kicked one boy in the genitals and called him derogatory names, including “retard” and “dumbass,” according to the complaint. After the kicking incident, the boy’s teacher “told him to leave it alone and it would be better within an hour.”

The student so feared going to school he would vomit beforehand, the complaint says. The school then referred the child’s mother to Truancy Court rather than address the persistent bullying, according to the complaint.

In another case, one parent filed eight-to-ten “Parent Concern” forms with her child’s public school, but school officials “never formally investigated the bullying incidents,” according to the complaint. At one point, bullying grew so severe the unnamed child refused to attend school.

“Sometimes I would have to pick him up and pull him out the door because he would fight me,” said the child’s parent, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The Education Law Center is seeking broad stroke changes to the way Philly schools deal with the bullying of disabled students, as well as individual relief for the four main plaintiffs.

Specifically, the plaintiffs seek changes that would make it easier for bullied students to transfer schools and require more training for teachers on how to deal with disabled students who are being harassed.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal