Back to School, Back to Bullying Part 2: “Toxic” Teachers

Hello again, readers,

“Are you that @!#* dumb?”
“If you want to get rid of that belly, go for a walk; do you know how to? You’re lazy!”
“You are such a ‘tard.”
“You want to be called ‘normal’ and don’t even know what it is!”

One would expect comments like these to come from cruel classmates, right? Yes, one should be able to expect that, and deal with it. But as the title of today’s post indicates, sometimes a student–particularly one with a disability, for the purpose of this blog–is faced with a bigger threat than the person at the next desk. Sometimes, the teacher is the bully, and unfortunately, students with disabilities (SWDs or KWDs, if you recall yesterday’s abbreviation) can be their preferred victims. In fact, many of the stories of teacher bullying that regularly circulate through the media these days feature students who have been placed in special education for one reason or another. And before you say that those stories are extreme cases, allow me to inform you that according to several Web sources, such as and, only ten (10) studies have been conducted across the United States on bullying and KWDs. I shudder to think how many cases of bullying, especially by teachers, go unreported.

The comments with which I opened this post were directed at real-life special education students. The first was a fourteen-year-old Ohio girl named Cheyanne, who was sent to school wired with a microphone so her parents would know what the special education teacher and her aide were allegedly telling Cheyanne. The evidence that came back included these fine educators telling this girl that she was dumb, fat, and lazy, did not deserve friends, and didn’t even need to have her tests graded because she would automatically fail. Cheyanne was also punished by being forced to walk on a treadmill in the classroom for an undefined period.

The other student, a boy named Julio, was taunted by a special education teacher in ways that make me cringe. Julio said to this teacher, “Call me normal; don’t call me special.” The teacher’s response? “Do you even know what ‘normal’ is? You want to be called normal and don’t even know what it is…you’re such a ‘tard.” This teacher also told Julio that “I will kick your a–” and asked, “What are you gonna do about it, get a chopper and chop me?”

And let’s not forget about Tyler, the boy locked in a “quiet room” for allegedly having an autism-related meltdown. Or the six-year-old Louisiana boy with autism whose teacher thought it’d be a brilliant idea to duct-tape him to a chair. I could go on for days, but it’s more important that we deal with the meat of this issue: why it happens, and how to prevent or stop it.

We know from yesterday why some of these things happen–SWDs may be seen as targets because they cannot easily communicate with others or defend themselves, or they’re seen as having poor social skills. But here, with the teachers doing the bullying, the question becomes: Why are you, an educator who supposedly entered the field to nurture children, using your knowledge for evil? Because–and call me dramatic or extreme all you want–this type of behavior is evil. Why did you enter the special education field at all, if you were going to act this way?

I believe several reasons exist for this type of terrible situation. As a lover of all things detective-related, I want to try to get inside the head of a bullying teacher. It’ll be frightening for us all, I’m sure, but here we go.

Reason: The teacher mistakenly believed his or her job would be “easier” with special education kids. This takes us back to a stereotype of SWDs as somehow less intelligent than their peers. But again, that idea doesn’t even stand up in modern society. Today’s doctors and psychologists know, more clearly than ever, that an IQ is often just a rough estimate of intelligence, and that “intelligence” doesn’t have as much to do with your literacy or math skills as we once believed. Yet, special education teachers–not all of them, but a few, who give the rest of the profession a bad name–continue to operate under the delusion that disability = dumb, and dumb = easy. This type of teacher isn’t interested in educating anyone. He or she is interested in a combination of control and relaxation–that is, putting forth minimum effort to keep the kids quiet and occupied, which is where we get mindless tasks that SWDs are often subjected to, so that the teacher can then kick back and have some coffee. This type of teacher also uses punitive measures like “quiet rooms” because they are “easy,” or because he or she is angry that–whoops! Teaching children with disabilities is going to require more time and effort than previously anticipated!
Reason: The teacher thinks no one will ever know what really happened. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve heard or read a story like Cheyanne’s and Julio’s, where someone–a blogger, a news outlet, someone–explained that the teacher got away with what he or she did because the child did not use verbal communication or because people were used to not believing the child’s words. This is where communication becomes vital, folks. It’s not just a matter of convenience or even quality of life for the person with a disability. It could in fact be life-saving, or at least spare that person a lot of stress and agony. And for goodness’ sakes, I’ll say it again: REFUSE to believe the manipulation myth (see April 2012 archives). Toxic teachers, as I recently heard them called, prey on myths like the one that says, “Kids with disabilities are master manipulators.” Do NOT let them use this excuse to cover up bullying behavior. Ever.

Reason: The teacher believes that whatever he or she did or said is justified. In other words, when and if confronted, the teacher cites the child’s behavior as a reason. As in, “I can’t get through to him,” “She was screaming,” “He hit me,” and so forth. Now, I’d buy that–if we were talking about the interactions of a couple of preschoolers. But we’re talking about interactions between a child with a disability, and the adult who’s supposed to care for him or her. Now, if that adult gets physically attacked, then yes, by all means, call in the cavalry. But don’t, even if that child punches you in the face, take that as an excuse to lock them somewhere or threaten to “kick their a–.” That is what other teachers are there for, school staffers–not to cover your backside when you get in hot water for bullying students, but to back you up when nurturing those students does require authoritative responses.

So, now that we know some reasons why this happens, let’s talk about how to stop it. Unfortunately for Cheyanne and Julio, things reached the point where the bullying had to be caught on microphone and videotape. But I don’t believe that our kids’ schools should be so unsafe, and our teachers so toxic, that parents should have to send them to school “wired” every day. (Whether or not they’re wired thanks to sugary cereal is a whole other ballgame). So, some basic tips:

1. Get the whole story in any way that you can, from your child. This may come down to the need for outside technology, but hopefully, your child has other communication methods, such as typing, using picture cards, using a voice-recognition machine…something. Reassure your child he or she is not in trouble and will not be in trouble with anyone at school; you simply want to know what’s going on in there. Even though your child may display the classic “I don’t want to go to school” symptoms, they won’t tell you as much as words or pictures can.

2. Meet with the teacher first, as tempting as it might be to go in there with both guns blazing (unless your child has evidence of physical harm, such as bruising or bleeding–then see below). It may be that what your kid says is bullying, is a teacher who’s doing his or her best, but tends to run the class on the “tight ship” side. Or “She’s mean” could mean, “She makes me do stuff I don’t want to.” If you can, spend some time in the classroom, observing. You may find out that the “special education” curriculum is not so special after all–that the students are, for example, being asked to do tasks below their levels, or to meet arbitrary goals in which they had no say. No, that’s not bullying, but it is a huge issue, and if that’s what you find, or if you find abuse, then:

3. Go to your principal, superintendent, or school board. If there is true bullying in a classroom, it may have been going on for awhile because the teacher has good cover. Administrators can hopefully help you blow that cover. And if there is no bullying, but your child is having problems because of being labeled “special” and treated in an exclusive way? Then it’s time to document what you see and hear. Do your research. Get together with other parents who feel as dissatisfied as you do. And then, do everything you can to get your school to embrace inclusion, thus making students with disabilities part of the school community rather than strange “visitors.” We’re not on Star Trek,, and the students aren’t Vulcans.

What Will be Done?

School systems have different ways of dealing with bullying teachers. They may be placed on corrective “action plans,” or be monitored by supervisory shadows while in the classroom. It’s difficult for a teacher like this to be fired, especially if he or she is tenured, but it does happen. The biggest thing I can say to you is that if you’re in this type of situation, don’t give up. Fight for your student and the other students around them. Stay involved with your school system, especially with your kids’ teachers. Elevate the good ones, so that the ones who act in the way I described, will realize that they’ve been taken to school–and gotten an F in empathy.


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