What should students do when the teacher or coach is the bully?

**The Edvocate is pleased to publish guest posts as way to fuel important conversations surrounding P-20 education in America. The opinions contained within guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of The Edvocate or Dr. Matthew Lynch.**

A guest post by Jennifer Fraser

Our sixteen year old son was competing at the 2012 Provincial Basketball Championships in British Columbia when one of the boys on the team texted his parents to say he “couldn’t take it anymore.” The coaches were calling the team “a bunch of pussies”, “hopeless” and “retarded.

For my husband and me, that was the point of no return.

When we heard those words, we knew we had to get our son away from those coaches. No matter what it took, we could not let our son be spoken to like that. This wasn’t the first time we’d seen or heard there was something wrong on the team with how the coaches were “motivating” the players, but this time, there was no going back. We could no longer excuse or forgive. The basketball court, that our son loved so much, was becoming a place he dreaded and hated. We didn’t want him to join the statistics discussed by Professor Mark Hymen: 70% of children drop out of sports by the age of thirteen.

This coaching crisis happened a year before the Mike Rice scandal erupted and there were still those who thought it reasonable for a coach to scream obscenities at student athletes. There were still those who believed that this kind of humiliation was in fact “motivation”. Post Mike Rice, in many parts of America that changed.

The logic is that these coaches give athletes the worst in order to get the best out of them. But at what cost? People excuse — or even celebrate — such behavior as a passion. But, let’s call it by its real name: abuse.

– Charles M. Blow, New York Times, April 2013

But in many parts of world, including my son’s high-school, it hasn’t changed and I don’t think it will until bullying—by adults in power over children—namely emotional or verbal abuse joins sexual and physical abuse in the Criminal Code.

At the school where our son played basketball, at the request of the Headmaster, fourteen students gave detailed testimonies about how the coaches were treating them. The police said that there was a “definite pattern in the complaints, all pointing to verbal and emotional abuse.” However, the police could not intervene, as emotional abuse is not in the Criminal Code. And so, over the course of three years, along with a dedicated group of parents, we appealed to school administrators, the Inspector of Independent Schools, BC School Sports, the Commissioner for Teacher Regulation, the Ministry of Education, and the Ombudsperson. To date, no one has done anything to hold the teachers to account for bullying conduct.

Decades of psychological, psychiatric, and sports abuse research has been done that reveals that bullying contributes significantly to a whole host of suffering: low self esteem, dropping out of sports and school, failure to reach potential, addiction, suicide and so on. However, in the last ten or so years, there have also been important neurological studies that illustrate the damage done to the brain of a bully victim whether at school or in the workplace. And in the last few years, there have also been further neurological studies that reveal that the adolescent brain is as fragile as that of the infant to toddler aged brain. It is in full development and therefore at great risk.[1]

Despite substantial research, emotional abuse from teacher to child, or coach to student-athlete continues to be minimized and dismissed as less serious than physical or sexual abuse. This dismissal is impossible to understand considering the neuroscience that chronicles the scars emotional abuse leaves on the brain. Dr. David Walsh, one of the world’s leading authorities on children and teens, stresses the way in which “Brain science lends even more urgency to confronting the scourge of bullying” exactly because there are “studies suggesting that the brain changes are long-term and therefore can create emotional scars that last for a lifetime”.[2] I doubt that when parents insist that “old-style coaching” is okay because it gets results and toughens kids up, they are informed about what is being done to their child’s developing brain. Parents may not know, but it is the job of teachers, school administrators and educational authorities to know.

Endless studies of peer to peer bullying are conducted while at the same time we wring our hands about how bullying is on the rise. We lament the fact that suicide is the second leading cause of death in adolescent populations. But, we do not take a hard look at bullying done by teachers or coaches. It seems to be a taboo subject even among researchers. Yes, there are many wonderful teachers and coaches out there, but that does not mean that bullying from those who have power over children doesn’t happen.

The research Dr. Martin Teicher, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School conducted in 2002 found that “verbal abuse by parents was as psychologically damaging as physical abuse.” More surprising, his research has shown that “kids suffered more depression, anxiety and other psychiatric disorders when bullied by peers than by parents.”[3] If bullying in the school setting causes more harm than the home setting, and verbal abuse is just as damaging as physical abuse, what happens when it’s teachers or coaches who are doing the bullying at school?

If a child finds it hard to report on peer bullying, or not be a by-stander when he or she witnesses peer bullying, that challenge becomes exponential when it is a teacher who has power over the child. Besides, it becomes much more difficult to recognize. Teachers are invested with the professional credentials to assess students and therefore if a teacher says a child is a “retard” or that a child is “not trying” then those words are stamped with official force in a child’s mind. Children don’t want to tell their parents that the teacher is disgusted with them or has rejected them. That’s like having to show a bad report card. On a profound level, the child may believe that the teacher’s humiliating “assessment” is true.

In a recent ground-breaking study by Duke University, that followed almost two thousand students into adulthood, researcher William E. Copeland, Professor of Psychiatry concluded: “If the results of this study are dismaying because they indicate that bullying is permanently scarring, the findings also strengthen the argument for prevention. Copeland underscores this idea. ‘Consider me a reluctant convert, but I’m starting to view bullying the same way I do abuse in the home,’ he said. ‘I honestly think the effects we’re observing here are just as potent.’”[4] The focus of the Duke study is peer bullying which raises the concerning question: how permanently scarring is it when the bullying is done by a teacher to a student or a coach to a student-athlete?

Do we really want to keep saying that when coaches scream obscenities at kids it’s to help them develop as athletes? When a kid calls another kid a “retard” on the playground, we don’t say it helps the child learn. We say that we have zero tolerance for children who bully, but we appear to have vast tolerance for adults who bully.

Until there are consequences, until teachers and coaches are held accountable, until emotional abuse is in the Criminal Code, it’s going to continue to be on the rise and suicide will continue to be the second leading cause of death in adolescent populations. It’s time to make a change and protect children from all forms of abuse. These concerns form the basis for Teaching Bullies: Zero Tolerance on the Court and in the Classroom. The book is a call to action.

[1] Laurence Steinberg, Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence, Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2014. Frances E. Jensen with Amy Ellis Nutt, The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults, Toronto: Harper Collins, 2015.

[2] David Walsh with Erin Walsh, Why do They Act that Way?: A Survival Guide to the Adolescent Brain for You and Your Teen, 2nd edition, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014 (254).

[3] See Amy Anthes, “Inside the Bullied Brain: the Alarming Neuroscience of Taunting,” The Boston Globe, November 28, 2010: http://www.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/11/28/inside_the_bullied_brain/?page=2

[4] http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2013/02/20/new_duke_study_on_bullying_childhood_victims_bullies_and_bully_victims_all.html


Jennifer Fraser has a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Toronto and is a published writer. She is presently teaching creative writing and International Baccalaureate literature classes at an independent school in British Columbia.

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