When the Bully is the Principal


Everyone is worried—rightfully—about what seems to be a cross-country epidemic of bullying. The problem may be nationwide, but the solution has been left to the 14,000 school districts and the 50 states. Because we all know that bullying in Oregon is a lot different from bullying in Georgia, right?

The result: hundreds, if not thousands, of anti-bullying policies. And, in the 43 states that have passed legislation, the laws differ in all sorts of ways, from prevention to punishment. When it comes to bullying, we’re all against it, but we don’t all agree even on what exactly “it” is.

With that background, the first-ever National Anti-Bullying Summit convened in Washington, D.C. this week. It was long overdue.

J. Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), represented Teaching Tolerance at the summit. He said the assembled experts agreed that effective prevention had to be part of a larger set of policies. “A good school culture and positive disciplinary systems are key,” he said. “Anti-bully programs can’t exist alone.”

But can a positive disciplinary system include corporal punishment? We think the answer is no. When an adult administers a paddling on the buttocks—the most common form of physical punishment in schools—that merely reinforces a child’s belief that violence is appropriate. It also sends the message that intimidation is an acceptable way to treat a weaker person.

Experts at the bullying summit today broadly agreed that corporal punishment is itself a form of bullying. Human Rights Watch documents how the two share similar effects that range from physical injury to depression, anger and academic disengagement.

Our concern about corporal punishment goes beyond its impact on bullying. Overwhelming evidence shows that who you are and where you live determine whether you’re liable to be whupped by a principal. As we’ve pointed out before, school use of corporal punishment is concentrated in just a few southern states. In those states, multiple studies point out that African American or disabled students are the ones most likely to get paddled. Many of these cases involve children with autism, whose “misbehaviors” are actually common to the autism spectrum.

In June, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy introduced the Ending Corporal Punishment In Schools Act. Unfortunately, it has not yet come up for a vote. The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights collects data that show clearly the extent of corporal punishment and its disparate impact based on race and disability. But the DOE should do more than collect that data. It should vigorously investigate and issue guidelines that prohibit corporal punishment.

The use of corporal punishment anywhere promotes bullying—even when, ironically, it is used to punish bullies. And the arbitrary application of corporal punishment denies equal access to safe and violence-free education. Its mere existence is at odds with the idea of a positive school climate.


This article makes a good

Submitted by morrison on 3 November 2011 - 9:12pm.

This article makes a good point that to everyone bullying is different. What we consider to be bullying here in New York may not be considered the same in Oregon. It seems that we often blur the lines between bullying and discipline, and as adults, that is truly sad. Adults should encourage children, especially those who already face difficulties. School should be a safe place, not one to be feared.

After 41 years service in

Submitted by Rmarch on 14 May 2012 - 4:56pm.

After 41 years service in education, it is my firm belief that one of the major reasons why our educational system doesn't work is because of the PRINCIPAL. The role of principal is too often seen as one of monarchy by those who attain the rank. To these bullies, their school is their fiefdom and they behave accordingly. The public school system is a perfect structure for the proliferation of the tyrant.
The beginning of wisdom for our schools must be the control of its leaders. Without that - nothing will good will follow.

Thanks from a Mom

Submitted by Anonymous on 8 June 2014 - 1:31am.

My son goes to a small school in the south. It is, quite literally HELL on earth for him. My son was only off the honor roll twice in his first six years of school. When he reached the sixth grade everything changed! Now he had a Principal to torment him on a regular basis. Now, he is passing at best and there is no one to go to. Thank you for being BRAVE enough to speak out about this epidemic! Believe it or not, if the truth was told, it is an epidemic and our nations public schools system is much sicker than anyone will own up to. Thank you.

I strongly believe both

Submitted by suzanne on 16 August 2010 - 11:28am.

I strongly believe both physical and emotional punishment are scars that a child will carry for a long period. The difference being; emotional scars are something a child endures for a lifetime. Why is it the individuals we entrust our children to for 7-8 hours a day, who we believe are educators, fail to realize the impact their words have on our children?
"children learn what they live"
"children learn by example"
Both are wrong and unjust and MUST BE STOPPED! for the sake of our children and the state of our nation.
Both teachers and administrators should be held accountable for their actions.

You are so right. Just

Submitted by Margaret C on 18 February 2014 - 9:53pm.

You are so right. Just because educators are entrusted to care for our children on a daily basis doesn't give them the right to bully, condemn and degrade our children to their liking. If they don't enjoy their jobs they need to find a new one. My son is experiencing bulling from his teachers and principal. At a Catholic school where you would think they would be doing Gods work they are beating down our children on a daily basis. An adult has such power over a vulnerable child and doing it in the name of religion makes me truly sick. My son has reported to my husband and I yelling, cursing and throwing of objects by teachers in the classroom. Sadly my son does not want to change schools but we cant take it anymore. Their demeaning, angry and discouraging words are so very hurtful to a child at any age. St Aloysius Catholic School in Spokane WA shame on you. Stop targeting and bullying children because you like to exert your perceived power.

If you think that there is an

Submitted by Steve on 15 August 2010 - 7:38am.

If you think that there is an epidemic of bullying, you have to look no further than the school itself for its cause. Every day at school, kids are taught that any group that can hold a carrot or stick over their head, whether it can be a diploma or facing the job market without an education, has the right to dictate anything to them. They learn this from the fact that they are coerced to comply with schools' arbitrary standards of decorum and conduct, regardless of the fact that they are essentially prisoners as their presence there is mandated by federal law and they will be arrested if they leave. They learn this from the police, who are not only sent after to apprehend them should they leave the school or otherwise behave in a way that the school does not condone, but on a day to day basis teach them with guns and night sticks and dogs and searches and seizures, the overarching theme of life in the United States that "might makes right". They learn this from our military, which is in two different middle eastern countries for no apparent reason and yet continues to bomb Iraq and Afghanistan back to the stone age many times over. Children today are given little to no respect by any interaction they have with their state or community, and this is why you see a growing number of young people today completely apathetic and turned off to what most people consider a normal life. From the time we are young we learn that we have almost no input as to where our life is going, that most of the things that are supposedly done for our benefit are actually done in spite of it, and that no matter how much we really try to be good, responsible, decent people, we will always be treated like criminals. From the environment and culture our children grow up in today, the ones who still manage to have some sort of self-integrity and social cohesion are the outliers here.

Steve, thank you for

Submitted by Jackie on 20 August 2010 - 2:28am.

Steve, thank you for providing this perspective.

The influences of culture may sometimes be subtle or even subliminal. The culture of the adult world has become too accessible and commonplace in the lives of children. Though we, as adults, have found ways to filter information presented to us through the news and various media we utilize every day, children have not and often do not have the capacity neurologically to deal with it all. Bad things that happen in our lives are hard even for us to deal with.

To help develop a child's sense of integrity and faith in humanity, many families protect very young children from the influences of pop culture and news media, surrounding them with love, affection, compassion and respect. Exposure to the ills of our world should not bombard the very young while they are making sense of their world, and influences should be accompanied by careful thought, reflection, and engaging discussion following the child's questions. A child should have a safe place; this is where integrity and compassion are built, within a trusting relationship.

Let us not teach our children complacency by being complacent. I say, notice what doesn't feel right and don't accept it as normal. Don't allow adult culture to bully children.

Principal bullying can go

Submitted by Celeste on 12 August 2010 - 5:48pm.

Principal bullying can go beyond corporal punishment- we experienced it last year during my son's first grade year. It has left a fairly significant scar that we are working hard to alleviate. Qualified, empathetic, effective and able administrators are becoming fewer and farther between. How do we get effective educators to leave the classroom to take on these roles? I know of one who did in a Denver High School - he should be a role model across the country.