Yesterday morning as I was doing work at home I listened in on the discussion Michael Krasney on NPR was having with a variety of people on his show regarding bullying. While bullying seems to be the new ‘in’ word to describe bad behavior, there is nothing new about it, most especially at schools. If anything, bullying has become a tour de force set of behaviors that have only gotten the attention or notice deserved because of the most recent suicides and physical/emotional issues seeing the light of day. In the past, it was almost unconscionable to talk about bullying, much like child or spousal abuse. Finally we are not stumbling over the carnage, we are addressing a very real issue affecting both students at school, the adults who work at the school and society at large.
As I listened to to various callers, I could not help but well up and cry. I had not been bullied in any substantial way as a child, rather just the generic kids being kids being obnoxious behavior. Perhaps that is why as an adult it was so darn difficult to see the bullying happening to me and around me when I taught at Cal Prep (Aspire Public Schools) in Oakland, CA.
As a teacher at Cal Prep, I watched an 8th Grader , D, beat up a 3rd Grader from Berkley Maynard at break. He was back at school a couple days later as the then principal wanted to ‘work things out’ since this particular student, although violent, scored high on tests. In my classroom, I had 7th Grade males calling one female, who shall go by J, double D. At first I thought they may have been talking about a rapper and gave it the benefit of the doubt as J said it was okay. When it persisted and I knew it related to breast size, of which this student was large, I put the kabosh on – or at least I thought I did. The principal felt I was too caught up in the name calling taunts and needed to back off so the boys would stop. I had a student who hated gays/fags and made it quite clear at PE. I called in the parents. The parents were all over it and took the student to task. The principal again felt that it was just a typical behavior from these types of kids and to lay off and they would stop. The group in charge of being the real discipline or guards at the school just happened to be some of the employees from The Black Muslim Brotherhood.
In a staff meeting, myself and another teacher stated we felt ishy about the school guards. I was later told by the principal in private that I needed to better understand the community I was serving, as in I am white, a portion of the community is black and essentially I was racist. I later found out the uncomfortable feeling I had was because the school guards were ex cons and pretty much everyone in Oakland had an issue with them, black, white or other.
To add insult to the various physical and emotional injuries going on around me with students, other teachers and myself were abused by the principal and administrative staff (V P’s) of Aspire Public Schools. I was ultimately tormented for being exhausted and anemic (the precursors to needing a hysterectomy) because I was ‘letting down my colleagues’ and then needing surgery – the hysterectomy, which could have interfered with school testing because it could require 4-6 weeks of me beingh out of work. I was denied the help to pack up my classroom or unpack it, both with written medical requests from the surgeon at Kaiser Permanente because the school was running low on funds and I just needed to figure it out. At the same time I was being tormented, another teacher who had a reoccurence of breast cancer was similarly being tormented and ultimately fired. I chose to leave from the pervasive and continuous harrassment so according to FEHA rules and regulations, I made an admission of guilt to my poor teaching due to exhaustion/anemia, in spite of everything else going on around me and was with an employer who used an at will contract. Another teacher (also a professor at Cal Berkeley) was physically and emotionally abused by the principal. The teacher with breast cancer won an out of court settlement so it did not need to go to trial (Lawless and Lawless). The professor compelled UC Berkeley to take appropriate action. I was left high and dry because technically, I could be let go for wearing the wrong color dress (at will contract). Another employee at our school who was diabetic, was regularly scorned and not allowed appropriate nutrition breaks. And yet two other employees were variously asked to schedule ‘differntly’ their medical appointments so it did not get in the way of the flow of the school as it was difficult to find substitute teachers/coverage.
In addition, the professors from the education department at UC Berkeley who were brought in as consultants, knew what was going on both with students and staff and let it pass. They did not want to get caught up in the politics. Parents, one of which is an administrator at UC Berkeley, one an employee at the law library were allowed without compunction to hassle the teaching staff in a vareity of e-mails as they were on the school board and the principal wanted very badly to have good PR with these two parents.
At the point I quit, my family and friends were astounded by how willing I had been to accept the abuse for myself and possibly believe the principal might be right. It took a while to understand I had been badly bullied by the principal, Aspire Public Schools, parents and my reaction was pretty reasonable considering the situation. I was overcome with a horrible sense of guilt rather than realizing I was only trying to protect myself.
Not only was I witness to bullying being perpatrated and tolerated at the school, it was used on me and at least three other teachers quite effectively so the principal could exercise his ego. The principal was promoted, another one came in. Aspire calls all of this a learning experience. They are so good at bullying they can even put it in a nice package and hand it to you.
Update: 22 October 2010