Advocates say the Philadelphia School District has downplayed or ignored pervasive bullying of special education students in classrooms throughout the city, and they want federal education officials to open an investigation and order changes.
The Education Law Center-PA filed its complaint to the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights on behalf of one district parent, but described bullying against four children. In announcing the action Thursday, the center said the problem is systemic and amounts to system-wide discrimination against children with disabilities, a group that includes thousands of Philadelphia students.
In some cases, it contends, the district failed to respond to or investigate instances of bullying, despite parent complaints over months and years.
A spokesman for the School District declined to discuss the allegations, but defended the district's policy and response to bullying.
One parent cited in the complaint said Thursday that her 9-year-old son, a third grader with autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, was bullied for two full school years, targeted over his book bag and sneakers, his appearance, and his disabilities.
"My son is really terrified," said the mother. Fearing reprisal, she asked that her name and the name of her child and his school be withheld. His name and those of other students were redacted in the publicly released complaint.
The woman said her son once suffered a concussion after classmates kicked and punched him and another time went to a hospital after students punched him in the genitals. School officials noted the bullying in their formal student evaluation but never addressed it, she said.
Once excited to go to school, the 9-year-old now shakes and vomits at the thought of returning, his mother said. He has talked about killing or harming himself. And when she recently suggested they soon would have to shop for school supplies, he panicked, crowding himself into a closet, crying.
"He said, 'Mommy, please don't make me go back to school,'" she said.
The boy's experience is not isolated, said Alex Dutton, one of the lawyers who filed the complaint. Students have been called names and assaulted, suffering academic losses and emotional problems because of bullying. Parents have asked school officials to transfer their children, but have been refused. They have filled out forms airing their concerns, only to be told that their children were not being bullied.
"What we see is that parents, having tried for months to get the district to do something, make the rational choice to keep their children home on days when they are demonstrating extreme aversion to school," Dutton said in a statement. "Rather than intervene in accordance with federal anti-discrimination laws, the district's response was to refer these families to Truancy Court, where the problem is framed as a failure of the family. This is not only discriminatory, it erodes any semblance of trust between district staff and the families they serve."
Jody Manning, an official with PACER's National Bullying Prevention Center — an arm of a group that advocates for children with disabilities — said children with special needs are two to three times more likely to be bullied than their nondisabled peers. In Philadelphia, more than 18,000 students are considered disabled — about 14 percent of the student body in traditional public schools.
But, Manning pointed out, "school districts actually have a heightened obligation to protect these students" because of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Lawyers in the case are asking for individual relief for every student named in the complaint, but also systemic relief. They want federal officials to order the school system to allow administrative transfers for victims, to force revisions to the district's bullying policy that make special considerations for students with disabilities, and to provide citywide training on the subject. The Office of Civil Rights must first make a determination whether the complaint warrants a formal investigation.
Lee Whack, a spokesman for the School District, said Thursday that he could not comment on the specifics of the complaint.
But, Whack said, "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. The safety of all students is our first priority."