Although most public attention regarding school violence focuses on situations in which students are the offenders, high school teachers and other school personnel are sometimes perpetrators. It is difficult to find solid data on how often educators are the offenders, as no one collects such data in a systemic way. Teacher- or staff-perpetrated violence may take many forms. Teachers may bully their students by being verbally or physically abusive. They may also commit sexual harassment or sexual assault. Corporal punishment is an example of systemic violence, when the violence perpetrated by educational personnel is the result of policies or practices that are supposed to be “for students’ own good.”
According to McEvoy (2005), bullying by teachers (or other staff, including coaches, who have supervisory control over students) is defined as “a pattern of conduct, rooted in a power differential, that threatens, harms, humiliates, induces fear, or causes students substantial emotional distress.” One anonymous survey of teachers at seven elementary schools found 45% admitted to having bullied a student. Teacher-on-student bullying is in many ways similar to student-to-student bullying. Like all forms of bullying, it is rooted in the bully’s desire to obtain and maintain power over the victim. Bullying is done deliberately and is intended to distress the victim. It tends to be repeated and, often, bullies face no repercussions for their behavior. The latter point is even more true when the bully is a teacher or school official.
Victims are selected for numerous reasons–because they appear vulnerable, because it is unlikely that other students will support or defend them, or because they have some particular attribute the educator does not value. Teacher bullies often claim their behavior is justified and will even suggest they have been provoked. Others claim their behavior is simply a motivational tactic or a necessary form of discipline. Because they are in positions of power, teacher or other educational personnel are more easily able to deflect complaints about their behavior. They may try to convince victims they are paranoid or crazy. They may assert that victims are simply unhappy with them and, therefore, are making unfair or unwarranted allegations.
Victims of teachers-perpetrated bullying often feel as if there is nowhere to go for help, as it is the very people who are entrusted to help them who are responsible for the abuse. This situation can leave victims depressed and anxious. Many miss school time to avoid the abuse, and then suffer additional repercussions.
Sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct that is sexual in nature. In a school setting, it refers to conduct that denies or limits a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from school programs. It might include inappropriate comments or touching, sexual propositions, displaying or distributing explicit materials, telling sexually inappropriate jokes, and spreading sexual-related rumors. Two types of sexual harassment are distinguished: quid pro quo and hostile environment. Quid pro quo refers to unwelcome propositions or suggestions. Hostile environment occurs when a third party (in this case, a school employee or other student) creates a climate that is inappropriate–for instance, by displaying explicit photographs.
Sexual harassment is prohibited by Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. Under this legislation, schools are required to have specific policies regarding sex discrimination and sexual harassment and to distribute those policies to students and staff. In 2000, a nation-wide study conducted by the American Association of University Women (AAUW) Educational Foundation found that approximately 290,000 students experienced physical forms of sexual harassment by a public school employee between 1991 and 2000. Another study two years later by the AAUW found that, of students who reported sexual harassment in schools, 38% had been harassed by teachers or school personnel. A 2008 study found that, while more students are bullied in schools, sexual harassment may be more damaging to both girls and boys.
Psychological abuse or maltreatment takes many forms, ranging from ridicule and verbal assaults to use of inappropriate authoritarian discipline measures to failure to intervene when students are being bullied or harassed by peers. Teachers may humiliate students by calling them names, by repeatedly calling on students who are struggling, and by publicly pointing out poor performances. A very common form of psychologically damaging punishment is the denial of restroom privileges. Educators often defend such abusive behavior, arguing that they were either kidding around or that they were responding to inappropriate student behavior.
One of the most vulnerable groups within schools is lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth. The 2005 version of the National School Climate study included 1,732 students ages 13 to 20. It found that 75.4% hear the words “faggot” or “dyke” frequently, and 89.2% hear comments like “You’re gay,” or “That’s so gay” frequently. These comments are typically made when faculty and staff are not present, but when they are around, only 16.5% of the sample said such adults intervened frequently. Students said staff are less likely to intervene when they hear this type of remark than when they hear racist or sexist comments. Notably, 18.6% of the sample said staff also made this type of remark.
Systemic violence refers to institutional practices or procedures that adversely affect individuals or groups psychologically, mentally, culturally, spiritually, economically, or physically. It refers to acts of violence that are embedded or institutionalized into the daily life of schools. Rather than being intentionally damaging, systemic violence is usually the result of practices or policies that are supposed to help maintain a safe educational climate but instead do harm to students.
Corporal punishment is an example of systemic violence. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), more than 250,000 public school students endure corporal punishment each year. Corporal punishment takes many forms, but in general refers to the imposition of some physical action that is intended to punish students for misbehavior. Paddling is the most common form of corporal punishment used in schools. A 2009 report by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch found students being hit by belts and rulers, as well as a variety of personal attacks including being thrown to the floor, dragged on hard tile, slapped, or slammed into walls. Students with disabilities are most likely to receive corporal punishment–in particular, students with autism. Most major medical bodies, including the Society for Adolescent Medicine and the American Academy of Pediatrics, have condemned this practice, as it can result in serious medical consequences, including muscle injury, blood clotting, and hemorrhaging.
Corporal punishment is banned in most of the world. Today, 106 nations across the globe outlaw corporal punishment in schools, including the United Kingdom, which did so following a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights. In the United States however, 21 states allow corporal punishment in schools, although the practice is prohibited in most juvenile detention centers and foster care settings.
Corporal punishment in the United States disproportionately affects African American students and, in some areas, Native American students. In the 20062007 school year, African American students accounted for 17.1% of the total U.S. student population, but 35.6% of those students who were paddled. In the same year, in the 13 states with the highest rates of paddling, 1.4 times as many African American students were paddled as might be expected given their percentage of the student population. Although girls of all races were paddled less often than boys, African American girls were nonetheless physically punished at more than twice the rate of their white counterparts in those 13 states during this time period.
- Epp, J. (1996). Systemic violence: How schools hurt children. London: Routledge.
- Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN). (2005). From teasing to torment: School climate in America. Washington, DC: Author.
- Gruber, J., & Fineran, S. (2008). Comparing the impact of bullying and sexual harassment victimization on the mental and physical health of adolescents. Sex Roles, 10, 1-13.
- Hyman, I., & Snook, P. (1999). Dangerous schools. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
- Office for Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Education. (2008). Sexual harassment: It’s not academic. Retrieved April 1, 2010, from http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/ocrshpam.pdf
- Stephey, M. (2009, April 12). Corporal punishment in U.S. schools. Time.
- A violent education: Corporal punishment of children in U.S. public schools. (2008). New York: Amnesty International.