Mobile devices have extended the reach of school bullies and students with disabilities or SEN are among their prime targets
Kevin Kaneta, who has cerebral palsy, was 15 when his mother pulled him out of school. He had dealt with bullying since he was very young, having been tripped up, pinned down and fed dog food by his classmates. But it was in late 2010 that he became unable to cope when photographs of the abuse he faced in the playground were uploaded to the internet. Photos of Kaneta, from Colorado, USA, fastened to a fence post and tied up in a hooded jacket were posted on social media site Facebook in an attempt to make fun of the disabled teen.
‘They go after me because they see me as a vulnerable target. They tied both arms of the sleeves of my sweatshirt behind me, to the fence posts. They zipped up my jacket and they just watched me struggle and try to get out.’
Kevin’s is just one of many incidents of bullying and discrimination faced by children and teenagers with disabilities and special educational needs (SEN). This kind of teasing and harassment is a huge issue for them, and it’s happening all over the English-speaking world. Here in Britain, 60 per cent of students with disabilities reported being bullied, compared to 25 per cent of the general student population.
Although there have only been a handful of American studies into bullying and developmental disabilities, all have shown that children with disabilities or special educational needs are two or three times more likely to be bullied than their peers. The National Center for Education estimates that 85% of children with disabilities and SEN are bullied.
In Australia, more than half – 62% – of disabled and SEN children experience bullying once a week or more, far exceeding the 1 in 5 to 1 in 7 of the general Australian student population who reported the same. An anonymous lawyer told AbilityPath, an international support network for parents of children with special needs: ‘For over 13 years, I have been a practicing attorney and advocate for families of children with special needs. There is not a week that goes by where I do not learn of a case of bullying directed toward a child with special needs.’
And now, in the age of social media and smart phones, bullying no longer stops at the school gates. Since its inception, the internet has introduced us to an ever-expanding world of educational and social resources for disabled and special educational needs students. Despite these advances, many of those who log on are met with bullying, intimidation and harassment – and none more so than the young and disabled. As one child told the UK’s Anti-Bullying Alliance: ‘It takes what’s happening in school to a whole other level.’
‘Here in Britain, 60% of students with disabilities reported being bullied, compared to 25% of the general population’
Dan Scorer, head of policy at Mencap, a UK-based charity that works with people with learning disabilities, told Special World that bullies exploited some of the common characteristics of young people with SEN. He said: ‘Cyber bullying is widespread, both on the internet and through mobile phones. Most young people will experience it at some time, but children with special educational needs are at a more profound risk as a result of their increased vulnerability, tendencies towards obsessive compulsive behaviour and social naivety. Indeed, pupils with special educational needs are 16% more likely to be persistently cyber bullied over a prolonged period of time.
‘Cyber bullying can be tackled in a number of ways, from talking to your child about what is and isn’t okay to tell people about themselves online, to reporting incidents of cyber bullying to the school, the phone operator, the social network provider, or even the police.
‘A big problem for many parents is that they don’t know where to start when it comes to protecting their child online. Mencap worked with Cerebra and Ambitious about Autism to produce a guide to help parents keep their children with special educational needs safe online. It provides information on how to make your home and mobile internet safe, guidance on how to support your child to use the internet safely and links to useful websites and organisations. We hope the guide will help parents to feel empowered to help their child make the most of the opportunities available to them online.’
The bullying experienced by disabled and SEN children, both online and elsewhere, is so pervasive and wide-reaching that it has become the theme of this year’s Anti-Bullying Week, run by the Anti-Bullying Alliance. Anti-Bullying Week, which will take place at schools and colleges across the UK from the 17 to the 21 of November 2014, will centre around the theme of ‘stopping bullying for all’, focusing on the disproportionate impact of bullying felt by disabled and SEN children.
Acting National Coordinator of the Anti-Bullying Alliance, Martha Evans, said: ‘Existing evidence shows us that children with special educational needs and/or disabilities are significantly more likely to suffer bullying than other children; with 83 per cent of young people with learning difficulties having suffered bullying and over 90 per cent of parents of children with Asperger Syndrome having reported the bullying of their child in the previous year. These stark figures demonstrate just how pervasive the problem is, and show that we must act now in order to stop bullying for all children.
‘Ultimately, bullying is a behaviour choice, one which parents, carers, teachers and the community must work together to change at grass roots level; educating the school and wider community that bullying in any form is wrong, and that any environment that encourages bullying, or shows indifference to prejudice and discrimination is unacceptable. Now is the time for children and young people to take the lead on changing behaviour and to stop bullying for all.’
Far from being part of a harmless online craze, online name-calling and joke-telling can have a devastating impact on children, with studies indicating that cyberbullying can significantly damage students’ self-esteem (and result in the development of negative attitudes towards schooling and increased absenteeism. In the Anti-Bullying Alliance’s guidelines, the organisation cites school leadership as the most important factor in dealing with online bullying.
The Alliance advocates a ‘whole-school community’ approach, whereby everyone in the school understands the dangers and impact of cyber-bullying and the steps necessary to tackle it. Focus groups with young people suggested that many felt their teachers, parents and carers were hesitant or uninformed regarding the issues around online bullying.
By bringing cyber-bullying into the every-day dialogue of a school, the issues can be better faced and bullying stopped more quickly and effectively, the Alliance argues. Further suggestions for tackling cyber-bullying at your school can be found in their guide here.
Similarly, AbilityPath’s journal: ‘Walk a Mile in Their Shoes’, calls for increased classroom awareness, both of online bullying and of different disabilities and educational needs. Experts seem to conclusively agree that open discussion and universal education will be a solid step towards ensuring that all children feel safe online. Schools should be encouraged, the report suggests, to maintain updated training that helps children better understand and use the internet, without putting themselves at risk.
AbilityPath teamed up with the Special Olympics and other organisations to launch the campaign ‘Disable Bullying’, which is working towards ending the bullying of disabled and SEN children, and specifically targeting the casual use of hurtful slurs.
With new technologies emerging all the time, it can be difficult to be sure that we’re providing students with the best, most up-to-date safety information there is. But as the scope of technology increases, so do the safeguarding resources and our access to the right information. By embracing the wealth of studies, campaigning groups and events aimed at tackling cyberbullying of disabled and SEN students, teachers, parents, carers and support workers can confidently encourage the children and teenagers they work with to get online and stay safe.