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Create a Safe and Caring Climate for Students with Disabilities

Sophomore Jack Hishmeh was walking down a back hallway in Topeka High one day when he spotted a room he’d never seen before, a room with students in it. He stopped, walked in and introduced himself to the students. They were all students with disabilities, including cerebral palsy and Down Syndrome. He soon realized that these students had few friends and were starved for companionship.

Every day the students with disabilities ate their lunch in their classroom—Room 116. Why? Because when they had gone to the cafeteria, no other students would sit with them. Worse, yet, they were teased, ridiculed and bullied by some of the other students.

Jack is an activist. So he asked the students’ special needs teacher, Claudia Shover-Daly, what he could do. “How about you start with lunch,” she suggested.

60 percent of students with disabilities are bullied regularly:

Research shows that any student can be bullied. No reason for bullying is needed. But students who are somehow different are more likely to be bullied. Students who do not conform to gender stereotypes, for example, are bullied more than gender conforming students. Students from a different ethnic group than the majority are bullied more often, especially Asian students. And students with disabilities are the most bullied group in our schools today. In fact, about 60 percent of students with disabilities are bullied regularly, compared with 25 percent of all students.

Jack Hishmeh started eating lunch with the students in Room 116. And soon, Jack introduced his new friends to his old friends. By the end of the semester, they’d become the “lunch buddies,” and each student paired with a special needs student and took them to the cafeteria. There they had lunch with everybody else and were no longer bullied. “My students are much happier since Jack and his friends stepped in,” says teacher Shover-Daly.

But the story doesn’t end there. The next school year, the lunch buddies recruited more students and became “Special Opps”—short for special opportunities. They took the students with disabilities to school events that they otherwise would never have attended—games, plays and concerts. Then, “Special Opps” took on the challenge of refurbishing Room 116. Now it no longer looks like a storage room.

Jack and his friends were rewarded many fold with the friendship of the special needs students, who are, as Jack learned, “Overflowing with hope, joy and happiness.”

There are at least two lessons to be learned here.

Studies show that more than 50 percent of bullying situations stop when a peer intervenes:

First, students can be powerful allies with educators in preventing bullying in their schools and creating a climate in which every student is respected. Studies show that more than 50 percent of bullying situations stop when a peer intervenes. Studies also show most students don’t like to see bullying, but they may not know what to do on behalf of others. For this reason, the Pacer Center, one of the nation’s leading advocates for children with disabilities, provides “peer advocacy” resources for students.

It is a lesson in empathy and good citizenship:

The second lesson is that reaching out and connecting with students with disabilities, or any students who are isolated or shunned, is a character-building life lesson for our students. It is a lesson in empathy and good citizenship that is far more valuable than learning how to score higher on a standardized test.

Like Jack Hishmeh and his friends, let us make our schools safer and more caring places for all students, including those amazing students with disabilities.

Take the Pledge:

Take the pledge to change school climate and let’s make our schools Bully Free!


Steps to Stop and Prevent Bullying

  1. Pay attention.
  2. Don’t ignore it
  3. When you see something – do something.
  4. Remain calm.
  5. Deal with students individually.

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