Sunday, January 07, 2007

Teacher Watch: LAUSD--How Much Money to Protect Bullies?

Reports about school bullying usually emphasize how adults need to witness on behalf of the victimized. The implication, certainly true in some cases, is that teachers see and simply ignore or dismiss incidents of bullying. But there's another layer of awareness we must document as professionals. We must examine ways in which we have ourselves been socialized to accept direct and indirect abuse.

Teachers often have long histories of isolation from administrative support when it comes to reporting discipline problems. After years of witnessing classroom or hallway troubles resulting in counter-productive or inconsistent patterns of administrative follow-up, many teachers intuit that they are "on their own" with student discipline, without institutional backing. Students are smart--they pick up on this isolation, even if they can't exactly put it into words. The logical message they get is that schools don't care.

This goes to another level entirely when teachers themselves are harassed or bullied by an isolated parent or student, when they are left unprotected by site administrations and school districts. Quietly, and usually out of public view, the front line for defense against student-to-student bullying can be severely demoralized and damaged, if not lost altogether. This lack of support and intervention sends a distinct message--it's your job, as the teacher, to be the punching bag--and the ripple effect can move through faculties and staff quickly. The social authority of the anti-bullying crusade will remain severely limited unless it begins to include an awareness of the teacher as potential target and victim of bullying. What will make such teachers’ testimony believable? And who will witness for justice on their behalf?

One California legal case should be on the radar of every California teacher, and in fact could cast a disturbing precedent across the country. Between 2002 and 2006, the conflicts in Janis Adams v. Los Angeles Unified School District made their way to the California Supreme Court, and are now suspended in Appeals Court pending a possible new trial this year. The plaintiff, a teacher named Janis Adams, faced an extreme scenario: her face was superimposed into pornographic photos and circulated throughout the school; she was openly libeled as a former porn star who had had anal sex so many times she had to wear an adult diaper; in an accelerating pattern over a three-year period beginning in 1997, she was threatened in her classroom and off campus by students she knew well, who did not themselves suffer any significant disciplinary action, despite her reports. UTLA helped Adams secure a restraining order, but the conditions deteriorated to such an abusive level that Adams had an emotional breakdown and was driven from the teaching profession altogether.

It's important to know that, in the original trial, after less than half a day deliberating, the jury ruled against LAUSD, saying that it failed to take reasonable steps to protect a teacher from ongoing harassment that created a hostile work environment. The jury also awarded Janis over $4 million in damages for economic and emotional distress. Here's the twist: when the District filed Hail Mary motions to vacate the financial judgment, the judge didn't merely reduce the damages--he stated that any teacher, in effect, voluntarily waives her civil right to a workplace free of harassment because she works with kids all day. In a mixed message which has fueled subsequent appeals, the judge vacated the financial judgment altogether while still upholding the verdict. LAUSD has to-date spent $1.2 million perpetuating the appeals process, seeking a new trial in hopes of overturning the verdict altogether.

The fact that Adams ultimately sought legal recourse against the district, which did not protect her in the face of what seem such clear-cut incidents of sexual bullying, suggests what other research indicates: that Adams is not unique in her complaints, only in her pursuit of justice publicly through the legal system. She chose to say “No” out loud and continues to live with the consequences. The initial abuse at the hands of students, appalling as it remains, seems secondary now to the enabling behavior of school site administration and the Los Angeles Unified School District. The district continues to argue, even in the face of the in loco parentis doctrine, that students are merely "third parties" from whom the district, as an employer, is not liable to protect its workers. By that logic, how could any district protect such "third parties" from bullying each other?

LAUSD has committed--financially, politically--to dragging Adams through a second trial, rather than taking public responsibility for reasonable steps to establish and reinforce a climate of safety for students and teachers, together. The next months will reveal whether a new trial goes forward. We shouldn't need to wait. As teachers in living, breathing communities, we must stand together for safe schools, and the first step means being willing to witness for each other, even if we've been abandoned at previous times ourselves. Suffering in silence is no solution.

For resources on bully-free workplace awareness in the USA and Canada, go to Bullying Institute.