|Youth Gangs at School|
|Special Education and Disabilities|
Children have the right to equal access to education, to have opportunities for quality learning experiences, and to feel safe at school and in their communities. Many children, however, have special needs and require additional services to succeed in school. Youth who are bullied by their peers, gay, lesbian, and bisexual teenagers, youth in gangs, and students who have special education needs face the same social and emotional challenges as their peers, but they are also at greater risk for psychological and social problems and poor academic performance.
Studies show that between 15-25 percent of U.S. students are bullied with some frequency. Bullies use aggressive behavior to show that they have power over another student. Bullying may be physical, involving hitting or punching; verbal, such as teasing or name calling; or psychological, involving social exclusion or spreading rumors about another child. Boys most often use name calling and teasing, while girls are more likely to socially exclude other girls. Youth with disabilities or special needs, and those who are gay or bisexual are at a higher risk of being bullied then other children.
Bullying is not just an unpleasant passage of childhood. Not only does it often interfere with school work, but bullied children are more likely to feel depressed, lonely, and anxious, and to think about suicide. It is common for bullied children to pretend to be ill or skip school to avoid their tormentor.
Middle school and high school students among the sexual minority may be the most vulnerable to victimization from school bullies. A 2001 survey found that 83 percent of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) students experienced verbal, physical, or sexual harassment and assault at school, according to the National Mental Health and Education Center.
A majority of GLBT students feel unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation. As a result, nearly 30 percent drop out of school, and the rates of suicidal ideation, attempts, and suicide by sexual minority students are two to three times higher than for heterosexual youth.
Students may not tell their parents that they are being bullied because they are embarrassed, ashamed, or afraid. If you suspect that your child is a victim, ask questions about what has happened, where the bullying occurred, and how your child responded. Do not ask your child to ignore bullies or encourage retaliation, which may only escalate the problem.
Contact the school principal, social worker, or your child’s teacher and describe the problem. Ask school authorities to talk with other adults who interact with your child to find out if they have witnessed any bullying behavior. Many school districts omit sexual orientation from anti-bullying programs, so parents of GLBT students may suggest that the sexuality issue is addressed and that school activities are available to all students, regardless of sexual orientation. School social workers can act as advocates for students who are victimized and identify a support network of caring adults.
Finally, encourage your child to make friends with students in the classroom or outside of the school environment. Children can become more resistant to bullying when they develop confidence and other positive attributes.
Middle school students and adolescents involved in gangs are not only at risk for poor performance in school, but also criminal activity and drug use. Youth gangs are no longer an inner-city problem; gangs are reported in every state and their memberships have increased in suburban areas, small towns, and rural areas. Small-town gangs have more white members, more females, and younger youth than large city gangs. The average age of gang members is 17, but children as young as age 12 join gangs.
Gangs are strongly linked with crime problems in elementary and secondary schools in the United States, according to the National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center. The presence of youth gangs is linked to drugs and guns in school. Adolescent gang members are more likely than other teens to commit serious and violent crimes.
Youth are drawn to gangs because of the status they receive, excitement, opportunities for making money, and other personal advantages. Students who have a low commitment to school, receive low grades, come from troubled families, or low socioeconomic status are more likely to join gangs. When students become involved in gangs, parents may note sudden changes in their child’s choice of friends and in behavior. They may become more secretive about their activities and have a diminished interest in family or school.
If you suspect that your child may be in a gang, monitor their activities and friends and involve them in supervised after-school programs or clubs, athletics, or volunteer opportunities with community groups. Also, contact the school social worker for counseling options or other interventions that may be helpful for your child.
Children with disabilities are especially vulnerable to learning problems. U.S. school systems administer standardized tests and assessments to determine children’s academic progress. Certain tests determine which children require special education services, as governed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Parents can request in writing that their child be evaluated for special education services, or teachers or social workers may recommend testing to ascertain educational difficulties.
Services are available for students who are eligible due to a learning, physical, or mental disability. These services may include social work services in schools, health and medical services, physical and occupational therapy, speech-language pathology and audiology services, and psychological services, among others. A group of school faculty, called the Individualized Educational Program team, convenes to study evaluation results, select appropriate services, and develop annual goals for each child with disabilities. Parents play an important role in contributing to this process.
Students who are struggling to obtain educational goals benefit when parents, teachers, and school social workers adopt a team approach to address problem areas and find solutions. When parents become involved in their children’s educational experience, they find that schools and communities offer a variety of services to help at risk children achieve academic success.