When Teachers are the Bully

Bullying was once considered a rite of passage and a normal part of the school experience. It was immortalized in the cult-classic film “Christmas Story.” Many bullied children reveled in the scene when Ralphie gives his tormentors a taste of their own medicine. However, this scene is mostly fantasy. Reality is far more troubling.

So, what is bullying?

Bullying is now defined as unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated or has the potential to be repeated over time. To be considered bullying, the behavior must be aggressive and include:

  • An imbalance of power: bullies use their power, physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity, to control or harm others. Power imbalances can change over time and in different situations, even if they involve the same people.
  • Repetition: Bullying behaviors happen more than once or have the potential to happen more than once.

There are two modes of bullying.

  • Direct: Bullying that occurs in the presence of the victim. A classic example is a physical act of violence.
  • Indirect: Bullying that occurs outside of the presence of the victim. The classic example is spreading rumors about the victim.

There are at least five types of bullying.

  • Physical bullying can involve hitting, kicking, punching, pushing, or otherwise attacking others.
  • Verbal bullying refers to the use of words to harm others with name-calling, insults, making sexual or bigoted comments, harsh teasing, taunting, mimicking, or verbal threats.
  • Relational bullying focuses on excluding someone from a peer group, usually through verbal threats, spreading rumors, and other forms of intimidation.
  • Reactive bullying involves the bully responding to being a former victim by picking on others.
  • Bullying can also involve an assault on a person’s property when the victim has their personal property taken or damaged.

Bullying includes a wide range of actions beyond acts of physical violence. The bully may be supported in his actions by peers, wherein it becomes a group versus an individual. It can include making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose. The popularity and availability of smartphones have moved some bullying online into “cyberbullying.”

The best information available says that 1 in 3 students have been bullied at school. Approximately 160,000 kids per day skip school because of fear of bullying. 70% of surveyed children admit they have witnessed another student being bullied.

Boys tend to engage in bullying more than girls. Girls are targeted more often than boys for bullying of all kids (23% to 19%). But, boys are more likely than girls (6% to 4%) to be physically bullied. According to the Center for Disease Control, students who experience bullying are at increased risk for poor school adjustment, sleep difficulties, anxiety, and depression.

Students who experience bullying are twice as likely as non-bullied peers to experience adverse health effects such as headaches and stomach aches. Victims who self-blame and conclude they deserved to be bullied are more likely to face negative outcomes, such as depression, prolonged victimization, maladjustment, and possible suicide.

The problem is not confined to just students. 70.4% of school staff have seen bullying. 62% witnessed bullying twice or more in the last month, and 41% witnessed bullying once a week or more. More and more students and advocates recognize that teachers and staff can also engage in bullying of students.

This form of bullying is particularly troublesome since the victim can not—and will not—readily report the abuse. Students are repeatedly told that teachers are at the school to protect and instruct them. The inversion of that role into bullying can be even more damaging than being bullied by a fellow student.

One mental health care professional observed, bullying flourishes in secret. This is particularly true of the teacher-bully. It typically occurs in the classroom where the only witnesses are other children. The victim is frightened of their tormentor and will not report the activity directly.

Two twin fears explain why. One, there is a fear of retaliation by the teacher. The other is the fear of not being believed. Who would take the word of a child over a teacher? Young children also believe that adults—particularly their parents—are omniscient. The victim may wrongly assume the problem is obvious.

Also, teacher-bullies are typically adept at “gaslighting” both parents and administration with deflection and redirection. Gaslighting is a form of psychological manipulation in which a bully covertly sows seeds of doubt in a targeted individual, making them question their own memory, perception, or judgment. “I don’t know” or “Little Johnny was misbehaving” are typical gaslighting statements that help the teacher-bully avoid responsibility.

Finally, administrators are seldom trained to view teachers and staff as being potential perpetrators. The training provided by most school districts focuses entirely on the student-vs-student bullying problem. Anti-bullying policies typically charge the school administration—usually the principal—with enforcement. However, most administrators view the teachers as colleagues and not a traditional employer-employee.

Administrators are also loath to intervene because it may mean that a teacher could lose their job with disastrous personal consequences. Most administrators are reluctant to tackle teachers’ employment rights based on an “isolated complaint” by a student of a “teacher being mean.”

As a parent/caregiver, be vigilant for significant behavior changes in your child. You cannot rely on your child communicating with you that they are being bullied. Warning signs can include:

  • Unexplainable injuries
  • Lost or destroyed clothing, books, electronics, or jewelry
  • Frequent headaches or stomach aches, feeling sick, or faking illness.
  • Changes in eating habits, like suddenly skipping meals or binge eating. Kids may come home from school hungry because they did not eat lunch.
  • Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares
  • Declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork, or not wanting to go to school
  • Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations
  • Feelings of helplessness or decreased self-esteem
  • Self-destructive behaviors such as running away from home, harming themselves, or talking about suicide

All 50 states have adopted statutes that prohibit bullying at school. However, these statutes vary wildly in their enforcement. The reaction by some school districts is woefully inadequate.

If you feel your student is being bullied, it is essential to reach out to an attorney with experience in handling these types of cases.



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