While bullying between school children has rightly received much attention in recent years, other types of school-based bullying are rarely discussed. Bullying of students by their teachers remains a significant problem and is every bit as dangerous as peer-to-peer bullying.
Teacher-on-student bullying takes many forms, ranging from physical to verbal and emotional abuse. Like youth bullies, teachers are most likely to pick on students they perceive as vulnerable. Teachers can take advantage of the inordinate amount of power they have over students and can generally feel safe that they will face no repercussions, as school systems are set up by adults and supposedly any and all “discipline” is for the child’s “own good.” Parents and administrators often do not believe students who report that their teacher is a bully. There are no tools specifically designed to measure teacher-on-student bullying, while there is a plethora of surveys and other data sets about youth bullying.
Sometimes, however, incidents of teacher-on-student bullying do make the news. Teaching Tolerance featured a story in fall 2011 about a teacher who encouraged her class to make pig noises at a boy she thought needed to be more organized. That same fall, the Today Show aired a video of a teacher berating a special needs student for her appearance and her class performance. The tape was captured when the girl’s parents sent her to school wearing a wire. On the tape, the teacher swears, verbally humiliates the girl, and throws a chair around the room.
In October 2012, another teacher embarrassed a six-year-old boy who kept twirling his hair by tying it into pigtails in front of the class. Later that year, an elementary school teacher encouraged students to spit at a 9-year-old who had made a “raspberry” at a classmate, while a New York City math teacher was “reassigned” to administrative duty for swatting at and spitting at students. Students claimed that this was a regular occurrence that just happened to be caught on video. In June 2013 the Huffington Post reported about a Florida science teacher who harassed his students by writing test questions like this one: “A 50 kg student has a momentum of 500 kg m/s as the teacher launches him toward the wall, what is the velocity of the student heading toward the wall?”
Policies at many schools allow this type of abuse. Corporal punishment remains an option for school districts in 20 states, despite decades of research showing that it is harmful to students and counterproductive. In their 1999 book Dangerous Schools, Irwin Hyman and Pamela Snook document the stories of students who were hurt so badly by a teacher’s paddling that they began hemorrhaging. Students told them horror stories about being beaten with all kinds of implements, often in front of others so as to maximize the humiliation, all with the approval of the school district. They also told stories of other types of degradation, such as when teachers refused to allow them to use bathroom facilities and they were forced to urinate on themselves.
Don’t get me wrong: Most teachers do not do these things. Most teachers work hard and care deeply for their students. It is also true, however, that most students do not bully anyone, either. Yet we still work to end the problem of bullying because we know how awful it is, both in the short and long term. I believe that we must also critically examine teacher-on-student bullying as well, including those policies that endorse abusive behavior. If we do not, our silence says that bullying is OK as long as the perpetrator stands in front of the classroom.
Laura Finley, Ph.D., teaches in the Barry University Department of Sociology & Criminology and is syndicated by PeaceVoice.