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FEATURE

Abuse of Power

Most bullying prevention is aimed at students. 
What happens when adults are the aggressors?
Illustration by Daniel Zender

A cherished belief runs deep in our psyches: A belief in the compassion of teachers whose heroic efforts transform the lives of students. There is truth in the narratives that support this view, but there is also a darker side to this mythos. In a small minority of teachers, an ugly undercurrent of mean-spirited and disdainful conduct toward students also exists. This conduct constitutes a corruption of the role of educator and does enormous damage to students, colleagues and the public’s faith in schools.

My personal interest in the phenomenon of teachers who bully has its roots in childhood experiences with a few teachers and coaches who waged a daily reign of terror over students. As an expert in school violence, my professional interest originated years ago while doing teacher in-service training on bullying. While—like most trainers on bullying—I focused on abusive behavior among students, I also raised concerns about the conduct of adults. This usually produced a hush in the audience, followed by requests to speak with me privately. Teachers and administrators revealed demoralizing experiences of a colleague’s cruel behavior toward students. The common denominator in these narratives was a sense of powerlessness and the conclusion that little was being done or could be done to mitigate the problem. 

I define teacher bullying as a pattern of conduct, rooted in a power differential, that threatens, harms, humiliates, induces fear in or causes students substantial emotional stress. In determining whether teacher conduct crosses a line into bullying, a “reasonable person” standard applies. Quite simply, others render an informed judgment that the teacher’s actions toward students are neither legitimate nor reasonable professional conduct.

In order to address the phenomenon of teachers who bully students, the education profession needs to grapple with several inconvenient truths. In general, bullying by educators is:

  • Rationalized by offenders.
  • Normalized by students.
  • Minimized or ignored by colleagues who remain silent.
  • Enabled by inaction of school systems.
  • Undetected by outsiders.

Bullying fundamentally disrupts the trust and nurturing relationships necessary to achieve any school’s mission. Most observers within and outside education would agree that fair and civil treatment of students is—or at least should be—embedded in the ecology of academic work. However, the opposite is true: The problem of educator-student bullying is compounded by a general absence of school policies and procedures written to handle allegations of abusive conduct. 

Efforts to reduce peer-on-peer bullying have taken on the momentum of a significant reform movement in education. At present, 49 states have passed laws intended to address bullying; most include policy guidelines for schools. A huge volume of resources and training programs has also emerged as a lucrative cottage industry in marketing “bully-proof” curricula. Conspicuously absent from this literature, however, is an emphasis on how to address abuses of power by educators toward the students they serve.

To date, there are no national studies on patterns of bullying by educators, and only a few limited studies exist that begin to document the phenomenon. In a 2014 publication titled Bullying Surveillance Among Youths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention acknowledges that its report “excludes abuse perpetrated by adults against children or youths.” Perhaps this absence reflects the politically sensitive nature of implicating educators at all during a time when the profession at large faces myriad accountability challenges.

Several generalizations can be made regarding the patterns surrounding bullying behavior in teachers. 

  • Bullying behavior often involves the public humiliation of targets.
     
  • There is typically a high degree of agreement among students (and colleagues) on which teachers engage in bullying behavior.
     
  • Teachers often bully in their own classrooms, where students witness the behavior but other teachers don’t. 
     
  • Teachers are perceived to bully with impunity; they are seldom held accountable for their conduct.
     
  • Schools generally lack a means of redress for students (or their parents) who register complaints against a teacher who has been perceived to bully.

When students are targeted by teachers, they often feel shamed and powerless. In many cases, they become unable to establish positive relationships within school. Teacher bullying can also have a contagion effect, indicating to students that the bullying of a particular individual is acceptable and making the individual vulnerable to more abuse. 

Perhaps the most distressing aspect of bullying behavior in teachers is how easily it persists. Colleagues may know about the behavior through rumors or persistent complaints, but think there is nothing they can do. School officials may have reason to believe it is occurring, yet fail to act. Almost without exception, offending teachers mask their mistreatment of students as part of a legitimate role function, using the rhetoric of “motivation” or “discipline” to justify their actions. If accused, offenders may minimize or deny the conduct and claim it was a joke or a miscommunication. Ignoring the problem of teacher bullying compounds it by giving license to any educator who believes that he or she can act with impunity toward students. 

Inaction supports a discriminatory and hostile environment that undermines learning and teaching—and puts schools at legal risk. But the shroud of silence surrounding teachers who engage in toxic bullying behaviors is unlikely to persist. Several lawsuits have been filed, and more are on the horizon. 

I have served as an expert witness in a handful of cases centered on allegations of bullying by educators. In some instances, the school was seeking to dismiss a teacher or coach who engaged in a pattern of abuse that reached a crescendo of student and parent complaints. Often a high-profile incident became the proverbial last straw that could no longer be ignored. In other instances, the school itself had been named in a lawsuit because it had enabled abusive conduct through indifference to persistent complaints. 

School officials have a duty of care to protect students; their failure to act despite notification of a problem enhances liability (see sidebar). But schools can (and should!) reduce bullying by teachers and staff members. Recognizing this truth and being willing to take action are difficult but necessary first steps.

  • Write or adjust bullying policies to explicitly address the conduct of both students and staff. Teacher conduct should also be identified in each school’s code of ethics. 
     
  • Use in-service time to discuss appropriate and inappropriate teacher behavior, especially in the context of disciplining students. 
     
  • Establish a means to address complaints about alleged bullying by a teacher. The right to redress—a process by which grievances can be heard and settled—is a basic civil right. 
     
  • Track formal and informal complaints, including student comments on course evaluation forms. Allegations of bullying should be included in annual evaluations.
     
  • Sanctions for bullying should not be limited to “counseling.” Attorney Alice Vachss has developed a model school policy that includes a “Statement of Standards and Protections” to address abuses of educational authority. 

For every teacher who engages in this abuse of power, there are many more teachers who care deeply and try to mitigate the enormous damage this behavior inflicts upon our students—and our educational ideals. They should not bear this burden alone. Policies can help. Speaking up can pave the way. 

What Behaviors Increase School Liability?

  • Demonstrating indifference to or lack of concern for persistent complaints about a teacher’s conduct.
  • Claiming to have investigated allegations without providing credible evidence. (NOTE: An informal discussion with the alleged perpetrator does not constitute an investigation.) 
  • Failing to follow policies and procedures when addressing allegations of teacher bullying.
  • Claiming that there is no history of complaints against a teacher when documentation of such complaints exists.
  • Silencing students or staff who register complaints with threats of retaliation, or taking no action against staff members who are known to have made such threats. 
  • Ignoring targeting of students based on race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, disability, religion, nationality or any other immutable characteristic.

For more information, check out our toolkit.

Toolkit

2 COMMENTS

Children have the right to be loved unconditionally, nurtured abundantly and protected valiantly - to have their feelings respected and nurtured in ways that allow them to develop a sense of self-worth. They also deserve a safe environment, free of intimidation, while under the care of their school. It is difficult to conceive or accept that a teacher would bully a student, and yet the data overwhelmingly indicates that teacher bullying is of major concern. And as school administrators are stretched with other obligations, teacher bullying goes unattended, disregarded or ignored. The bullying teacher becomes more empowered, and the student is helpless. Teacher-to-student bullying is similar to peer-on-peer bullying. It is an abuse of power that is usually expressed while other students are present (such as in the hallway), in the classroom and on the playing field. Teachers who bully children with learning disabilities usually choose them because they see them as easy (or soft) targets. They're chosen because of some perceived difference (learning difference) that the teacher dislikes. Such target selection is discriminatory and, as such, is recognized as a hate crime. School administrators, principals and teachers are considered to act "in loco parentis" (in place of parents) during school hours and could become professionally and personally liable for a student's physical and emotional suffering if they do not act to protect the student. If the school (a) fails to recognize that a student is being bullied, harassed and/or discriminated against because of their disability, and (b) does not correct or rectify the hostile environment that constitutes discriminatory harassment, then such failure to act, subjects the school and those acting on behalf of the school to criminal and civil liability for the tragic outcomes of the bullied student. Bullied children are at a much higher risk of depression, anxiety and even suicide. Therefore, parents must act. And although it may feel uncomfortable pursuing answers to protect their child, doing nothing is worse. By Lorraine Donovan, author of a new book on dyslexia called "A Child's Touchstone", Dyslexia guidance for "Less than Perfect" Parents and Teachers. To learn more or to purchase "A Child's Touchstone", go to www.achildstouchstone.com – ($39.95)

There is little research on psychological abuse and abuse of power of teachers to pupils. I have witnessed this phenomenon once before and left my job over it. Students voted with their feet and would not go in the room with ‘her’. I have never seen someone repel young people as much as she did. Was it just me that noticed the effect she had on students? No the staff were rife with tales of what they had seen.
The head said in confidence, you can’t sack someone for having a shit personality. But I fear this was just an excuse not to have to tell ‘her’ she was psychologically abusing the students and foremost that it had been happening in her school.
So far I have not described any of the incidents, for which I would like to turn into some kind of checklist in case anyone is in the same situation as me and feels when the psychological abuse impacts on students learning and wellbeing, they need to report it.
I turned up with Alan Mcevoys, Abuse of Power article to the meeting where I reported all my evidence that paralleled the article and how by law psychological abuse was as bad as physical abuse, and the managers walked out of the room. The NCTL investigated the teacher but said that they did not have enough evidence to pursue things. The school just defined the incidences happened and wrote me off as mentally unwell. I felt if there had been a checklist I could have collected the evidence needed to pursue things. What would be the next step?

What I witnessed over 3 years; (a prior school also reported similar behaviour)

2/11 of the cohort claimed she made them too anxious to go in the room
1/11 had their spelling made fun of
1/11 faced the toilet door while she read at the back of the students head for 15 minutes
A high proportion did not make progress in her class, some declined in achievement
1/11 got told their mother should take better care of them. The student was a child in care
1/11 reported being told they would amount to nothing
The teacher lied about a students actions to get him in trouble with the police, she said it was a misunderstanding. CCTV proved the lie.
She refused to enter some students for their exams, despite the students wanting a chance to sit it
Her lessons were very lowly attended

Silly little things you can’t quite get in trouble for, but they add up. The checklist is designed to monitor this build up, so someone can be warned that their practice is the opposite of nurturing, which should be against school ethos. I am not sure if the teacher I reported knew the impact her behaviour was having on students achievement and wellbeing, she had a negative mind set and presumed they were rubbish at her subject hence the decline in achievement and would bounce back quickly from the students reporting not to like her.

I think her behaviour falls under a few key categories, which can all be evidenced and used as checklist so people can put an end to toxic environments that impact on the children’s achievement and wellbeing. Every person in a school should put the student first which is why this kind of teacher behaviour should not just be ignored and written off as a ‘shit personality’;
Causing students anxiety. Can be evidenced by student statements
Causing students to abscond the teachers lessons exclusively. Can be evidenced by attendance data
Degrade students by reading at them facing a toilet door. Can be evidenced by teacher statements
Humiliate students with verbal comments. Can be evidenced by student statements
Getting students in trouble. Could have been evidenced by the CCTV if the school had been better equipped to save it
Low aspiration of students.
Poor progress made in that teachers lessons exclusively. Can be evidenced by progress data

The checklist is not exhaustive and I am still to this day am not sure if all the things I witnessed amount to psychological abuse. Hence why I am writing this on here, to try and get something started for people to prevent students failing a subject because the teachers too mean to them. When is too mean is the question the head teacher asked and the managers walked out. What happens to a teacher who’s too mean? Is psychological abuse really as bad as physical if no ones been sacked for psychological abuse?

If the teachers manager had sat the teacher down and shown her a checklist and how she was working her way through the list/had done all of the things on the list, who knows maybe she would have stopped and students would gain that important qualification under her guidance.