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Bully-Proof Plan Attorney Shares What to Do if Your Child Is Targeted

Every child has unique gifts and challenges. But any and all differences can make a child more susceptible to bullying. About 49 percent of children in grades four through 12 — or half — reported being bullied by other students at school at least once during the past month, according to the Centers for Disease Control. And, the CDC reports, children with special needs are at higher risk of being targeted.

But Ellen Callegary has good news for parents: You have rights, says the former assistant attorney general who spent 10 years in that office addressing issues related to people with disabilities. Callegary chaired the Juvenile Law Committee of the Bar Association of Baltimore City and is a member of the Maryland State Bar Association Council on Elder Law and Disability Rights Law.

“There is case law that deals with bullying,” Callegary says. “It says bullying can be a denial of free and public education.” And a free and public education is every child’s legal right.

What can a parent do when his or her child is being bullied? Callegary lays out a plan.

Step 1: Assess Your Child

“Many of my clients have a mental health provider, and if they have one, get the child into a therapy session ASAP,” says Callegary. “Obviously, if there’s an injury — some of my clients have gotten injured — take them to a pediatrician or the ER or urgent care.”

But sometimes bullying can be silent, Callegary says. Parents of elementary schoolers should pay attention to behaviors such as begging to stay home from school with complaints such as stomach aches and headaches. “If it’s a continual somatic complaint without an underlying medical condition, that’s a red flag that the child is not getting her needs met in the school,” Callegary says. “I’ve also had clients go to the nurse every day.” Without an underlying medical condition, “that’s another red flag.”

Step 2: Communicate with the School in Writing and in Detail

“Immediately call the school. Talk to the principal and talk to the teachers,” Callegary says. She advises parents to “follow up in writing, with an email” to everyone on your child’s team. Be as specific as possible, giving your child’s description of the events and your observations of their reaction. Then, Callegary says, ask them immediately what they’re going to do.

What’s their proactive plan to protect your child? Don’t exaggerate, but don’t let your concerns be diminished either. Callegary says teachers sometimes have trouble believing the bullying is happening. “If you have a child who is a ‘go-along-get-along,’ not creating disruptions in the classroom, and if you have concerns, they’re often minimized. I see that all the time.” Then, when the child is starting middle school, things change. “We find many clients come to us at the transition from elementary to middle school because the academic and social complexity of that environment is much greater.”

Step 3: Paperwork: Spread It Around

“Once your child is stabilized and you’re convinced the environment is safe, the next thing you’ll want to do is fill out the bullying harassment form and get that to multiple people,” Callegary says. That includes principals, case manager and teachers. “You can’t assume people will communicate with each other.”

Step 4: Make a Safety Plan

Next, convene your child’s educational team to “make revisions to the Individualized Education Plan or put together a safety plan that’s separate from the IEP.” A good safety plan, says Callegary, “should ensure there are adult eyes on the child all day, throughout the day, even on the bus.” Adults need to know they are designated as part of the safety plan. For example, she says, if a teacher is going to be in the locker room, it needs to be in writing that the teacher’s responsibility is to keep an eye on your child.

But observation doesn’t have to — and shouldn’t — be intrusive. “It doesn’t have to be that somebody is glommed onto Fred so that he can’t have any fun interactions with other students and he feels awful. It can be done without being intrusive on [the child’s] day,” she says.

“What used to happen — and I of course argued against this — I’d be in an IEP team meeting about frequent bullying and they’d say, ‘Oh, that’s not related to Fred’s IEP. The principal here talked to the boys, and they’re not going to do it again,’” Callegary says. But when a student with special needs is feeling anxious because they have been picked on, that anxiety interferes with cognition and other learning. Addressing the bullying then becomes an important part of an IEP.

Step 5: Be Proactive

Once your student’s IEP and safety plan are set, Callegary recommends you ask the administration to create proactive plans for each student who is bullying. Parents are not privy to information about other students, including their own IEPs or their discipline records, but parents can still make that request.

Step 6: Seek Advice  If You Need It

If you aren’t getting to a place you need to be, get legal advice, Callegary says. “At any point we can be behind the scenes, consulting.” The vast majority of the cases she handles find resolution through IEP team meetings or other communication. But if a case can’t be resolved through that process, she seeks mediation for a family.

Ultimately, however, everybody is on the same team. “There are really good, wonderful people in public education who want to do the right thing,” Callegary says. “My clients are complex human beings. I don’t walk into IEP meetings pretending that I have all the answers because I don’t. I say, ‘Let’s listen to each other,’ and I listen to the school team members and really try to understand their perspective. Parents are supposed to be equal partners with the school system. That’s what I try to promote.”

About Erica Rimlinger

When Adranisha Stephens isn’t chasing down a story, she is traveling, blogging, photographing or spending time with family and friends. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Frostburg State University and a master’s degree in journalism/digital storytelling from American University.

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