Thesocial hierarchy extant in the system of education, in which bullying and victimization are generally considered a social ritual, a typical part of adolescent experience, or even a student’s rite of passage may prove to be more detrimental for students with disabilities. While evidence suggests that special education status does not directly predict victimization among primary-aged student, preschool-aged victims may be characterized as having preexisting internalizing problems.68,69These internalizing problems (anxiety, withdrawal, or sadness) may be exacerbated by the early development of group dynamics where students migrate into social clusters based on social, physical, or environmental similarities. The development of these early social clusters may exclude students with disabilities, because evidence suggests that students with disabilities are regarded as unpopular and have fewer close friendships than students without disabilities, thereby placing them at a greater risk for victimization.
Although special education status may not serve as a predictor for victimization at the primary level, as students’ progress through their educational careers, the discrepancy between students with and without disabilities becomes increasingly more evident. Contextually, special education status may not be a direct predictor during the early stages of education because students may not be able to cognitively identify the Differences, the disability may not be noticeable, or the disability may yet to have been identified. Presumably, once these differences have been established within a social context, disability status emerges as a potential predictor for involvement within the bullying dynamic. This broad assumption is grounded in the majority of the extant literature thatexplicitly
identifies adolescents with disabilities as being victimized significantly more often than their general education peers.70
It is important to recall that when general and special education are viewed as a dichotomy (i.e., presence or absence of a disability), research suggests that students with disabilities are victimized significantly more than students without disabilities. For example, typical estimates suggest that approximately 20% to 30% of the student population have experienced bullying either through victimization or perpetration. Conversely, several reports suggest that students with disabilities, without consideration for disability labels, are victimized at least twice as much as their general education peers. More specifically, by making the dichotomous distinction between general and special education, a recent study found in a large-scale sample of middle school students (n=1009) that students with disabilities reported significantly higher rates of victimization when compared to their general education peers.69
Additionally, significant differences between students with and without disabilities are not necessarily isolated to victimization. At the present time, a growing number of research reports are beginning to investigate the bullying behaviors of students with disabilities. While approximately 13% of the American school population exhibits bullying characteristics, several research reports suggest that students with disabilities are identified as bullies twice as often as students without. However, escalated victimization rates among students with disabilities may lead to increased bullying rates, because victimized students may develop aggressive characteristics to combat victimization.71
Unfortunately, bullying and overt aggression may be interpreted in a similar manner even though the terms are distinctly different. For example, a recent study found that students with and without disabilities reported similar rates of bullying behaviors, but students with disabilities reported significantly higher rates of fighting behaviors. Interestingly, students without disabilities who reported being victimized also reported higher levels of bullying behaviors, while students with disabilities who reported being victimized reported higher levels of fighting behaviors. These findings suggest that victimization may lead to more aggressive behaviors in students with disabilities, but not necessarily more bullying behaviors.
The distinction between students with and without disabilities, in reality, is more complex than a simple dichotomous approach. While the term “disability” is used to refer to a large subgroup of students, in actuality, disability status falls upon a continuum. More specifically, the federal government has identified 13 disabilities categories that maintain different eligibility criteria. However, eligibility criteria may differ from state to state, and each disability maintains a range of severity. This range of severity leads to a range of supports and instructional placements for students with disabilities. Therefore, it becomes necessary to explore the discrepancy in bully involvement for students with and without disabilities in terms of class placement (i.e., inclusive classrooms, segregated settings), the severity and overt nature of the disability, and the specific disability characteristics.72
One of the central issues currently facing students with disabilities is access to the general curricula. The 1997 amendments of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 1997) escalated the initiative to increase access for students with disabilities by requiring participation and progress in the general curriculum. More specifically, the Individualized Education Plan
(IEP) must include statements regarding how the disabilities affect participation in the general curriculum, annual measurable goals geared toward increasing the participation in the general curriculum, and program modifications (i.e., services, adaptations, supports) necessary to achieve these goals.
More recently, the revisions of IDEA, now referred to as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA, 2004), placed a strong emphasis on improving the educational outcomes for students with disabilities through evidence-based practices. These provisions allow school districts to use up to 15% of their federal budget for early intervening services, which include extra academic and behavioral supports in general education classrooms. However, all the provisions to IDEA or IDEIA to date have allowed for the continuum of services for students with disabilities (i.e., inclusion, self-contained classrooms, and segregated schools) as long as the placement is justified by the student’s least restrictive environment. The continuum of services available for students with disabilities may be necessary for some students to be successful either functionally or academically. These additional services, however, provide a fundamental difference between students with and without disabilities, because they often include alternative classroom placements, overt academic accommodations, or increased personnel support.71,73
Traditionally, class placement is broadly defined in terms of inclusive or segregated settings. Inclusive services represent a philosophy of education that is geared toward including all students in the general education classroom with the purposes of providing a meaningful, challenging, and appropriate curriculum for everyone. In contrast, segregated settings (i.e., pullout programs) are provided outside the general education classroom for
purposes of providing specific academic instruction or behavioral supports. While these two approaches are distinctly different, students with disabilities may be subjected to multiple variations of each defined by their least restrictive environment. Based on the ambiguity of the definitions and the general assumption that all students with disabilities require some level of academic or behavioral supports, this chapter will consider inclusive services where the student receives a majority of their core academic instruction in a general education classroom.74,75
In general, students and teachers consistently rank students with disabilities as frequent victims of bullying. When consideration is given to class placement, rates of victimization often vary between students in inclusive settings and students in more restrictive placements. This variation could be attributed to educational practices, classroom structure, or the severity of the disability. For example, one study investigated the victimization rates of 93 students with disabilities in an inclusive setting and their demographically matched peers and determined that the students with disabilities were victimized significantly more than their general education classmates.
Similarly, another study explored the victimization rates of students with disabilities in inclusive and restrictive settings and compared them to their general education peers. The researchers reported that students in self- contained settings were victimized significantly more than their peers with disabilities in inclusive settings and their general education counterparts. These findings are supported by current literature that has documented that students in segregated settings are victimized by their peers twice as often as any other subgroup of students.20,76,77
Similar to victimization, class placement could also serve as a predictor of bullying perpetration. Although current research is limited regarding bullying
among students with disabilities in inclusive and restrictive settings, foundational research suggests that perpetration follows the same pattern as victimization. For example, in a large-scale middle school sample, it was determined that students with disabilities in a more restrictive environment engaged in more bullying and fighting behaviors than students with disabilities in inclusive settings and their general education peers. It has also been suggested that students with disabilities who were victimized in inclusive environments tended to exhibit bullying behaviors when moved to a more restrictive environment. Unfortunately, as previously stated, bullying and aggressive behaviors could be interpreted synonymously, and this distinction will be discussed further in the disabilities characteristics section.2,65
Although current research suggests that students with disabilities are victims and perpetrators more often than their general education peers, inclusive practices could serve as a preventative factor for the victimization of and perpetration by students with disabilities. The preventative characteristics of inclusive settings could be attributed to positive behavior modeling, acquisition of social skills, increased social and academic development, increased acceptance, reduction in negative stereotypes, and increased participation in classroom activities. However, it should be noted that not all of the existent literature has documented the discrepancy between victimization rates among students in inclusive and restrictive settings, indicating that inclusion does not always maintain these preventative characteristics. For example, if students are not fully integrated into peer groups, inclusion may maintain or exacerbate victimization and perpetration. This lack of integration could hinder the development of a protective peer base and limit students’ opportunities to learn, practice, and validate social skills. Thus, ineffective inclusive practices could be detrimental for students
with disabilities in regards to involvement in bullying as perpetrators and victims.3,70