When Teachers Are the Bullies

Education Building a better region together, one story at a time

The Learning Curve: When the Bullies Run the Classroom

People sometimes turn to reporters when nobody else will listen. When they want to solve a problem and all practical remedies have been exhausted.

This is both a benefit and a hazard of my job. Sometimes I can document what went wrong, and occasionally public pressure changes things for the better. More often, there’s not a lot I can do.

Learning Curve-01This stings. I feel for people when they’re hurting or confused. Especially when it’s a parent, scared for his or her kid.

As an education reporter, I hear all sorts of stories from parents, across school districts. It may be a mom in Escondido, worried the special education classes her son is receiving in Escondido are actually making his disability worse. Or a parent in San Diego Unified who says her daughter, who is learning English, is shoved aside in class, isolated by her broken language skills.

There’s a reason we don’t always read about these problems: They’re difficult to prove. The injustice may be real, but can be explained away by reasonable-sounding policies. Impartial third parties are hard to come by. Schools host our children, our most precious resources, but can often act as mini-bureaucracies that few outsiders penetrate.

Two parents recently came to see me. Their story went like this: Their son needed help. He’d been a student at Torrey Pines High School in San Dieguito Union High School District, where they said he was repeatedly harassed and bullied by teachers. They said that they approached the principal, he defended the teachers, then shut down communication with them. (The principal, of course, has a different perspective – more below.)

They handed me a list of grievances they’d printed out. It was long. Detailed on the list: the time one teacher called their son a “retard,” tried to trip him and threatened to throw a shoe at him. Other teachers, they said, applied unfair grading policies for their son’s work simply because they didn’t like him. Overcome by such treatment, the boy eventually left, and is now taking classes online, they told me.

I’d told them I’d look into it — and I did — but I suspected this was another one of those situations where I wasn’t going to find much beyond what they told me. I was right. But I learned a couple things along the way, so I decided to try something a little different for this week’s Learning Curve.

I’m going to turn the parents’ grievances into a question, and try to answer it with broad strokes.

Question: “My child is being bullied by teachers and school staff. What recourse do I have?”   

In pretty much every movie made about high school ever, there’s a bully. It’s like their existence is part of a universal template for what school looks like.

But what we once may have accepted as a natural part of growing up, we now realize is deadly serious. In the past two years, in particular, San Diego has seen a recent string of teen suicides. Afterward, sources attributed the deaths to the actions of bullies.

No way around it, kids can be awful to one another. It sometimes takes an adult or teacher to intervene, or at least at communicate to parents that students are hurting. But it’s more unsettling to think that adults can be just as nasty as kids.

Like the time a substitute teacher in Illinois joined students in mocking a special needs student. Or when a teacher in Ohio slammed a kindergartener against the wall and grabbed his face. That teacher was suspended for 10 days. There are more egregious cases, yet. We’ve all heard about the semen-laced cookies.

Now, I’m not comparing those cases with complaints the San Dieguito parents made. The harassment they describe is much subtler, and harder to define. In other words, we’re dealing with perception. But they were faced with a similar desire to step in and advocate for their son.

I spoke with David Jaffe, principal of Torrey Pines High School. He told me the parents’ complaints are unfounded, and that they’ve been looked into thoroughly. He said the problem started when the parents challenged grades the boy received in class. They weren’t successful with that challenge, and their allegations grew over time, he said.

In fact, I read a lengthy report about the situation written by Michael Grove, an associate superintendent in San Dieguito. Grove wrote that harassment complaints would be investigated by another team, but he detailed the reasons why grade changes wouldn’t be appropriate. By all appearances, it seems here like policies and protections were in place, and a grievance process was followed.

That explanation points to a call I’m sure teachers and principals have to make frequently: Do these parents have legitimate concerns, or are they being over-zealous helicopter parents, blind to their own sense of entitlement? (This article from The Onion is pretty great).

On the other hand, the explanation here from school district staff is pretty much what you’d expect when any agency is in charge of investigating itself: e.g., We looked into your complaints, and found nothing.

So what can parents do if they think their children are bullied, harassed or discriminated against by a teacher or school staff? A few things.

First, talk with other parents. See if your experiences lines up with theirs. They might have some tips for how to communicate with that teacher. Plus, if your concerns are legit, having other parents back you up makes it harder for school staff to dismiss your worries.

Start documenting things that trouble you, marking the date. Having clear, specific examples to discuss might help you resolve the issues once you voice them.

Then, reach out to the teacher. Try to come from a place of inquiry or concern, instead of lobbing accusations from the start. Assume the teacher wants to do right by your kid. Remember that teachers hear from a lot of parents, some of the helicopter variety. Besides, it’s possible your worries are based on a misunderstanding. There’s also a chance your child might be guilty of some mischief, so be ready for that. (Yes, your angel.)

If you’ve made a good-faith effort, and your concerns are still happening, take it to the principal. But know he or she might also play defense. If a teacher was really being a dick, and the principal did nothing to stop it, the principal might also be guilty of dickishness.

Then, if the problem isn’t resolved, consider taking it up the chain to the board of education. School board members could ask district staffers from outside the school to look into it. But don’t jump to this step. If you do, you’ll be unprepared to answer basic questions, like: “What did the teacher or principal say about this?” (Of course, it’s a different story if you suspect serious misconduct or physical abuse. In that case, tell the principal or call the police.)

You can also file a formal complaint with the school district about a specific violation – like not meeting your child’s special education needs – or mistreatment by a particular employee. The district will then be compelled to look into and at least respond. But here again, the district investigates itself.

If you think your child has been discriminated against based on race, gender or a disability, you can also file a complaint with the federal Office for Civil Rights. This, and the formal complaint filed with the district, can be done simultaneously.

And if all else fails, contact a reporter. If nothing else, a reporter will listen.

Ed Reads of the Week

• Why Is This Marketplace for Teachers to Sell Their Lesson Plans Thriving? (Slate)

Seven years ago, a first-grade teacher in Long Island starting selling her lesson plans online. That seems to have worked out. She’s since earned about $450,000, which augments her teacher’s salary.

She’s not the only teacher cashing in. Educators are flocking to websites where they can purchase informal curriculum materials, like tips and sample lessons, that are developed by other teachers.

Why the sudden boon? It’s related to the switch to Common Core, which can require a new way of delivering lessons that teachers haven’t been properly trained for. In some cases, teachers may have been asked to make the switch before they had proper textbooks or resources to help them.

The risk is that lessons teachers are selling and purchasing haven’t been vetted by curriculum experts. Just because a teacher is great in the classroom, doesn’t mean he or she is a master at developing curriculum. But it shows us that when teachers need help, they trust advice from other teachers.

• Testing the Power of the Parent-Trigger Law (The Hechinger Report)

You may have heard of the parent-trigger law. (Yes, it sounds threatening. And it certainly can be.) Based on a law passed in 2010, if 51 percent of parents at a school vote to do so, they can petition to turn a struggling neighborhood school into a charter school. Other options including replacing the principal or shutting down the campus entirely.

Parents in Los Angeles are seizing on the provision, but there’s a twist: Instead of rushing to bring in a charter to operate the school, they’re using the law as a bargaining chip to bring in additional resources. Essentially, they’re saying to the school district, “Give us the resources we need to make this school successful, or we’re going charter.” So far, it’s proving surprisingly successful.

• Thriving in the Heart of Chicago (The Atlantic)

Speaking of charter schools, check out the college-entrance rates at this one. This charter in Chicago, where 83 percent of students come from low-income families and nearly all are black, puts up some of the best numbers in the Chicago area. In 2012-2013, every graduate was accepted to a four-year college and more than 90 percent enrolled.

In order for a school to successfully serve students in poverty, school leaders say five factors must be present:  “Leaders must be effective and teachers must work collaboratively. The school must have a climate of high expectations and strong instruction. Families must be engaged. If a school does well in three of those five areas, research has shown it will be 10 times more likely to improve student performance than its neighbors,” writes Beth Hawkins.

Now, those five keys to success may also sound like familiar platitudes, but with the kind of results the school is showing, it’s worth taking a microscope to how the school catches students who are slipping behind and encourages them to meet their goals.

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