The entire nation is aware of bullying and its effects on students. There are a host of national campaigns and programs to address this topic head on. Here in the CNMI we are also staying active on the anti-bullying front with proposed legislation and the creation of policy for the protection of cyber-bullying among other forms now being introduced at both the state and school district levels. Most notably being introduced by students themselves, which is rather ironic in as much as adults are supposed to be protecting them.
But what happens when the bully is the teacher or administrator? Where is the policy language to speak to that? Where do students go when the very people we tell them to go to when they are being bullied are actually the ones who are doing the bullying? This conduct happens in schools districts across America and in many cases the student chooses to simply change schools when it gets out of hand. Unfortunately, here in the CNMI our students do not have the luxury of choosing schools. Recent research shows that there is likely at least one bully teacher or administrator in every school. For staffing patterns that are at or above 100 employees that number increases. What that equates to at the high school level in the CNMI is that the single bully teacher has an estimated 120 students under their charge that may be subject to their bullying on a daily basis and this can be seriously devastating for the student and even affecting their family.
Dr. Deborah Serani, a psychologist and practicing psychoanalyst, states in her research, “Teachers who are bullies have the same characteristics of other bullies. They are sadistic and petty, gaining self-esteem through the humiliation of others. In the school environment, a teacher-bully will shame a child in front of classmates, often using their position of authority in abusive ways. The teacher-bully may make an example of a child, sending him out of the room or to the corner. Maybe an extra assignment or denying your child recess becomes the vehicle for bullying.” This type of conduct serves the teacher well as they mask their bullying under the guise that they are disciplining the student or otherwise using alternative instructional methods-a host of fabricated excuses to cover up what is really happening when the bullying teacher or administrator is involved.
As a former principal I know full well the effects of teachers bullying their students. I have had to address it on more than one occasion as I am witness to the ill effects on the students. Their lack of desire to come to school out of fear of the teacher, they’re withdrawn and silent when they used to be vibrant and full of life. They cower when the teacher walks by or approaches, their head down and an obvious subservient demeanor is manifested simply by being in the presence of the administrator or teacher doing the bullying. How are we to expect children to learn in that environment? How can they even be motivated to learn? And what’s worse is that many may choose to bully others as a result of being bullied by their teacher. Indeed a sad reality, as the vast majority of teachers are dedicated and committed to being there for the student and helping them overcome many of the challenges they face in the classroom. But for the few who are not, the few who are the “bullies,” the negative impact of their behavior is often far greater and lasting in the student’s mind.
In my early years as a teacher, I remember several teachers who would fit the description of bullying students. Even physically pushing them around and saying things like “what are you going to do about it; I’m the teacher, who is going to believe you?” I complained several times to the administration about these individuals and for the most part the principal swiftly addressed it. Where I felt it needed more, I personally went to the teacher and added my two cents for lack of a better phrase. I recall one teacher who had the habit of head butting his students under the guise that he was hard of hearing and couldn’t see that well, so when they got close he would bend down and say “what”.and crack his big ‘ol forehead square into the student and then back off and say “oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that, I didn’t see you, etc.” He finally did it to the wrong student who was about his own size and the student cold-cocked him square in the nose, of course followed with, “oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t see you there.”
More recently, even though I am no longer working for PSS, I continue to get stories from students who are likely being bullied by their teachers and or administrators. With one administrator reportedly having a habit of pushing his fat belly into students as he approaches them in a scolding manner, which really is nothing more than outright intimidation and bullying. Another story is about the administrator who is constantly using race as a means to belittle the student whenever they are present. In each case I contact the principal directly to share the concern and to voice my desire for them to take clear and decisive action to protect both the student and the school system. In most cases there should be documented intervention such as counseling and education along with follow up to ensure that retaliation against the student is not occurring. Continued complaints should warrant Board of Education intervention.
Dr. Alan McEvoy, Ph.D. from Wittenberg University writes in his paper Teachers Who Bully Students: Patterns and Policy Implications that “teachers who bully, feel their abusive conduct is justified and will claim provocation by their targets. They often will disguise their behavior as ‘motivation’ or as an appropriate part of the instruction. They also disguise abuse as an appropriate disciplinary response to unacceptable behavior by the target. The target, however, is subjected to deliberate humiliation that can never serve a legitimate educational purpose.”
Bullying by teachers raises the specter of school liability. For example, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education 526 U.S. 629 (1999) provided language and a set of principles that should give educational institutions pause. The Davis Court defined those factors it found compelling to expand school liability from staff-to-student sexual harassment (where the school is liable for the conduct of its employee) to student-to-student sexual harassment (where arguably the conduct occurred without the school’s complicity.) The court ruled that schools receiving federal funds, at all levels of education, may be held financially responsible where officials are “deliberately indifferent” to harassing behaviors that are “severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive.” If the Supreme Court found those principles an adequate basis to expand school liability in one arena, why wouldn’t they apply equally to a decision to expand school liability in another arena (i.e., to liability for teacher/student bullying)? The Davis Court established four criteria in considering liability: 1) school officials had actual knowledge of severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive conduct; 2) school officials were deliberately indifferent to such conduct; 3) the school had control over the harasser and the context where the harassment occurred (such as the classroom); and 4) the school’s response, or lack of response, was unreasonable given such knowledge. The court ruling also suggests that schools should have in place policies and procedures to address abusive conduct. Failure to have in place a means to redress a legitimate grievance related to behavior that creates a hostile environment for learning enhances a school’s liability. In effect, if a discriminatory hostile environment exists in the classroom, and school officials have been given appropriate notice but fail to act, then the school risks both compensatory and punitive damages.’ A full copy of Dr. Alan McEvoy, Ph.D research can be found at:
It’s time that schools take a hard look at what is happening on campuses and in the classrooms and collect the information needed to take action to protect students from bullying by not only their peers but their teachers and administrators. I would ask that the BOE with the help of a professional external organization create a student survey regarding this issue so that they may get to the bottom of what’s really happening in our schools and create an action plan to address the findings. I am sure the findings will be shocking. Our children are our only hope to the kind of future the world will see. Let’s not blind them with abuse from those who are supposed to show them the light.
Craig H. Garrison is a former principal of Marianas High School and Saipan Southern High School.