Dealing with Bullies in a Different Kind of Workplace: Schools

Imagine that you go to work every day and are taunted to your face and called hurtful names by groups of your co-workers. Unrelenting insults and threats come blasting into your cell phone. You’re yelled at and mocked in front of your colleagues. Your manager sees some of this happen and asks you if you’re OK; you mumble “yes.” Later, you tell your leader you feel rotten, and you’re told it will get better if you ignore it. You do your best, and you keep going to work because you have to. Sometimes you’re literally pushed around and threatened with harm, and it doesn’t stop. And when you go home and go online, there’s the same stuff about you on your personal page for all your friends and the whole world to see. If you Google your name, the bad words and humiliating insults are there, all linked to you.
Situations like this are diminishing at work. Most of the time, employers act to prevent this kind of conduct and promptly intervene to investigate and correct it. But students lack the same protections. I’m haunted by the terrible story of Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old who with her family had recently emigrated from Ireland to Massachusetts. She hung herself in January after suffering from unrelenting bullying. From what I’ve read, just about all of what I described above happened to her.
Schools are workplaces. As employers, they act to prevent such harassment affecting faculty, administrative personnel, and others. They have policies, processes, and training. Largely, these steps work. I know there are differences between employees and students, but the risks of ineffective or no action are at least as high and on occasion more tragic. In the workplace, an employee can quit his job; but students must go to school, and their families often lack the resources, especially in these times, to send them elsewhere. Faculty with managerial roles know they need to act when made aware of harassment allegations involving other faculty colleagues. Why not the same sensitivity to conduct that they see or hear about involving school-aged kids, especially when it is often worse than the instances of harassment that prompt them to act?
My own view is this: I don’t think educators widely recognize that bullying is as outrageous as harassment. I also believe they see hazing as part of adolescence that some must unfortunately live through. But the pervasiveness and intensity of social networking and online communications has taken painful, scarring life experiences and made them excruciating for many and intolerable for some. Perhaps we need strong laws and penalties to force administrators, teachers, students, and parents to act. If so, that’s too bad, as one would hope that educators and others would recognize that allowing such conduct undermines education and their role of stewards, whether a law is in place or not. Stories like Phoebe Prince’s should be enough to wake people up. And there are too many of them to think this is a fluke occurrence.
Here are my recommendations:

  • Let parents, teachers, administrators, and students know that there are certain types of actions, including comments and touching, that are wrong and intolerable. They affect education. They can lead to discipline at school and possibly personal liability for students (depending on their age and conduct) and parents who fail to act to control their children when made aware of such conduct.
  • Anyone in a faculty or administrative role should be taught to recognize signs of bullying and to intervene and get information when they are told of or observe conduct that looks like bullying. Teachers who don’t act need to be disciplined up to discharge; failing to act is allowing a dangerous hazard to continue.
  • At the school “workplace,” administrators should make it a rule that unless there is an emergency, using the phone or texting is not proper during school time. This won’t solve the problem of after-hours communications, but it is a start. And surely there is a way to recognize that threats made outside of the physical school grounds can affect students at school as well and are unacceptable.

Some will say that such limits are unconstitutional, vague, intrusive on rights of privacy, or illegal for other reasons. I’ll let the school lawyers and educators figure out how to best define specific processes and rules. And we can be sure that litigation will be launched by some who challenge their actions. But my vote as a taxpayer and parent is this: I’d rather see lawsuits fought, come win or lose, than not see our schools do all they can to protect children and adolescents who are still learning to harden their personal defenses from cruelty and danger.
Students should be able to go to a safe spot to learn in their workplace: school. If we can set up procedures to minimize harassment for employees, surely we can do the same, if not better, for their offspring, the victims of bullying.

Leave a Comment:

Your Comment:

©2024 ELI, Inc. All Rights Reserved