Students with Disability and Bullying Risk

Sarah Guckenburg, Anthony Petrosino & Jacqueline Mundry — WestEd

Bullying continues to receive national attention, sometimes driven by cases in which victims and targets of relentless teasing and harassment commit suicide. It is important for state departments of education, districts, and schools to understand the size and scope of the bullying occurring among their students, and what students may be at particular risk for victimization. A report examines the additional risk there exists for vulnerable students with disabilities.

The project, sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences and conducted by the Regional Educational Laboratory for the Northeast and Islands (REL-NEI), was undertaken to provide a better understanding of risk levels for certain subgroups of students.[1]

Prior research supports the notion that bullies pick on their peers who are “different,” such as students with disabilities. But most of this research was conducted primarily using surveys of students within a single school or district, or from outside the U.S. In this important contribution to the field, our team analyzed data from the 2009 biennial, statewide Maine Integrated Youth Health High School Survey (MIYHS) of 108 schools (grades 9-12).

An immediate goal of the project was to adequately define what constitutes a student with a disability, as this varies across studies. And this definition had to be one that could be applied to conduct the analyses of the available survey data. For the REL-NEI report, students that had a health, emotional, or behavioral problem, or were limited in activities because of such problems, over a period of six months or longer, were considered to have a disability. Unfortunately, the data did not identify students with learning disabilities alone.

The results from this statewide analysis support the pattern of findings from prior research. The risk of self-reporting that they were the victim of bullying during the academic year was nearly 50% (49.5%) for students with disabilities, compared to nearly 29% of students without disabilities. The risk rate was similar regardless if the student disability was physical or emotional/behavioral in nature. The risk difference between disabled and non-disabled students was similar on or off school grounds. In fact, students with disabilities were almost twice as likely to report that they were the victims of cyber-bullying (31.4%) than students without disability (15.9%).

Our team also examined whether the differences in risk rates between disabled and non-disabled students varied by subgroups. For example, the differences between disabled and non-disabled students varied little by gender or grade level. However, race and sexual orientation “compounded” the risk of bullying victimization for disabled students. Specifically, students of Hispanic ethnicity who were disabled reported higher rates of bullying victimization (e.g., 50% for Hispanics compared to 33% for white students). This was also true of students who self-reported gay, lesbian, bisexual or “unknown” sexual orientation (e.g., 66% of disabled students who self-reported bisexual orientation reported they were bullied versus 33% of disabled students who self-reported heterosexual orientation).

The information learned from analyses such as the one reported on here can help policymakers and practitioners identify the contexts in which bullying is likely to take place. It can also help identify areas in which interventions can be implemented to support the most vulnerable students. For more information about bullying and youth with disabilities and special needs see


[1] See Guckenburg, Sarah, Susan Hayes, Anthony Petrosino and Thomas Hanson (2011). Bullying of Disabled and Non-disabled High School Students: A Comparison Using the Maine Integrated Youth Health Survey. Technical assistance research report: Northeast & Regional Education Laboratory, Northeast and Islands. This study was requested by representatives of the Parent Information Resource Centers (PIRCs) and the Maine Departments of Public Health and Education.  See


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