Why We Cannot Get Bullies Out of the Classroom

Penn State students riot in support of Joe Paterno


I am still trying to remove from my head the images of the riot at Penn State on Wednesday night.  As someone who was sexually abused as a child, I am furious that so many students felt a need to defend Joe Paterno, the head football coach who was fired after it came to light that he had failed to report to the police the alleged rape of a child by his former assistent coach Jerry Sandusky.

But as somebody who taught in public school for fifteen years, and in an "elite" private school for four, I am not surprised.  Far from it. 

Schools love bullies, both in their student bodies and on their staffs.  They love them because bullies play an essential social function: they keep the freaks in line.  I have not taught on a school where there were not teachers who routinely bullied their students, and were revered.  Absolutely loved by administrators, parents, and even many of their students.

Bullies attract toadies who allow them to abuse their power so long as they themselves are allowed to benefit from it. Paterno has a lot of supporters, like biographer Joe Posnaky, who was outraged that none of the people who Paterno has helped have stepped up to defend him:

But I have seen some things in the last few days that have felt rotten, utterly wrong — a piling on that goes even beyond excessive, a dancing on the grave that makes me ill. Joe Paterno has lived a whole life. He has improved the lives of countless people. I know — I’ve talked to hundreds of them. Almost every day I walk by the library that he and his wife, Sue, built. I walk by the religious center that tries to bring people together, and his name is on the list of major donors. I hear the stories, the countless stories, of the kindnesses that came naturally to him, of the way he stuck with people in their worst moments, of the belief he had that everybody could do a little bit better — as a football player, as a student, as a human being. I’m not going to tell you these stories now, because you can’t hear them. Nobody can hear them in the howling.

But I will say that I am sickened, absolutely sickened, that some of those people whose lives were fundamentally inspired and galvanized by Joe Paterno have not stepped forward to stand up for him this week, have stood back and allowed him to be painted as an inhuman monster who was only interested in his legacy, even at the cost of the most heinous crimes against children imaginable.

It does not occur to Posnasky that none of these people have stepped up because they knew Paterno was capable of this.  He does not realize that bullies often use displays of generosity that are also displays of naked power.  The people who owe the most to Paterno are also the people who know what the man expected in return for his help.  They know how he ran his program in a way a writer doesn't.  Their silence should cause Posnasky to re-evaluate his own adoration of Paterno and willingness to excuse him.  Instead, he self-righteously condemns people who aren't standing up for someone who got fired because he was told a kid got raped in his own locker room, and he did as little as possible.  Joe Posnasky has diminished himself because he has a man-crush on a bully.

Bullies inspires respect and admiration.  They get stuff done.  They thin the herd by getting weaklings to drop out or kill themselves.  Schools use bullies to enforce order.  They are very reluctant to remove them from the classroom, in part because no one wants to make them mad.

An Ohio girl's parents hid a tape recorder on her after she complained about being bullied by her special education teacher Christy Wilt and teacher's aide Kelly Chaffins:

In a one portion of the tape, Chaffins became upset because the way girl answered a question.

 "Are you kidding me?" Chaffins said. "Are you that damn dumb?  You are that dumb?  Oh my God.  You are such a liar."

"I am not lying," the student said.

"No wonder you don't have friends," Chaffins said.  "No wonder nobody likes you."


Chaffins was forced to resign after administrators heard the recording.  Although Wilt participated in the bullying, and apparently punished the girl for getting a wrong answer by making her use a treadmill, she is still employed.  Her entire punishment is eight hours of education.

Miami Trace school superintendent Dan Roberts still has a job, too, despite the fact that the girl's family were forced to use a tape recorder because he ignored their initial complaints, and even tried to bully them into silence:

Roberts investigated the first complaint.  According to an e-mail obtained by 10 Investigates, Roberts found absolutely no truth to it and warned the girl's family that their concerns were "bordering on slander and harassment."

"When we found the audio proof, we acted immediately," Roberts said.

Wilt was not suspended, he said.

"We felt the level of her involvement there did not meet with the level that educational aide had done," Roberts said.

This pattern of teachers bullying students and getting away with it happens all over the country. Yesterday, Towleroad featured the story of Pat Lynch:

Pat Lynch, the football coach of Buffalo High School in Wyoming resigned this week after it was revealed he had handed out an offensive "Hurt Feelings Report" to players which included boxes for them to check with attributes like "I am a pussy", "I am a queer", "I am a little bitch", and "My butt is easily hurt"

Incredibly, Lynch has been allowed to keep his job at the school as a guidance counselor.  Yes, he's the guy kids are supposed to go to if they are being bullied or if they feel depressed.  That's a great idea.

Superintendent Rod Kessler thinks it is, at least:

“We’re going to work with Pat and have him continue doing the good things he was doing prior to this mistake,” Kessler said. “Our hope is that we can mend things we need to mend and gain back the trust and get the reputation that he needs to gain back as a professional."

“He made a bad mistake and he’s paid for it, and he’s got an uphill battle to work with right now,” Kessler said. “He’s got our support, and we’re going to try and make it.

“There are people that are, of course, very unhappy and would like us to do more. And there’s people that thought it was about right.”

And Elizabeth Snyder is still working at New York State University, after discriminating against Philip Garber, a teenager who stutters:

He kept his hand aloft for much of the 75-minute session, but the professor did not call on him. She had already told him not to speak in class.

Philip, a precocious and confident 16-year-old who is taking two college classes this semester, has a lot to say but also a profound stutter that makes talking difficult, and talking quickly impossible. After the first couple of class sessions, in which he participated actively, the professor, an adjunct named Elizabeth Snyder, sent him an e-mail asking that he pose questions before or after class, “so we do not infringe on other students’ time.”

As for questions she asks in class, Ms. Snyder suggested, “I believe it would be better for everyone if you kept a sheet of paper on your desk and wrote down the answers.”

Later, he said, she told him, “Your speaking is disruptive.”

Even The New York Times, which initially told Philip's story, could not resist letting Snyder explain, as bullies always do, that she is the real victim:

“I’ve been an advocate for kids my entire life,” she said. “But people’s rush to judgment on this, it feels like it’s pretty much destroyed my life.”

Teachers, coaches, and professors are the not the only bullies in schools.  Part of the cheating scandal that engulfed the Atlanta public schools under former superintendent Beverly Hall was a culture of harassment and intimidation:

In Georgia, teachers complained to investigators that some students arrived at middle school reading at a first-grade level. But, they said, principals insisted those students had to pass their standardized tests. Teachers were either ordered to cheat or pressured by administrators until they felt they had no choice, authorities said.

One principal forced a teacher to crawl under a desk during a faculty meeting because her test scores were low. Another principal told teachers that "Walmart is hiring" and "the door swings both ways," the report said.

Another principal told a teacher on her first day that the school did whatever was necessary to meet testing benchmarks, even if that meant "breaking the rules."


The organization that gave her an award for Superintendent of the Year felt terrible-- not for being tricked into giving her the award or for the students she cheated-- but for Hall herself:

"We feel terrible for Beverly that she's leaving with less than the adulations she ought to be receiving after the great work she has done," said Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, which gave Hall her national award.

"The problem with superintendents is because you're making tough decisions all the time, the list of detractors grows and grows and grows, and they tip the scale and they get you," he said. 

America loves both bullies and the sort of impossible results Hall's schools produced by cheating on tests.  So Hall was nominated to the National Board for Educational Sciences by President Barack Obama.  And I'm not sure that nomination has ever been officially withdrawn. 

It would actually be easier for me to forgive the Penn state students who rioted in support of a guy who got in trouble for ignoring child rape if people outgrew this willingness to forgive corrupt but charismatic bullies just about anything.  But the President of the United States was taken in by Hall, even as she was under investigation for the largest cheating scandal in the history of the United States.