By Marc Freeman, Sun Sentinel
The school bully you thought you knew now has company. It’s the principal, the teacher, and even parents who are making life miserable for others and threatening student achievement.
Although student bullying remains a regular threat, cases of adult-to-adult or workplace bullying in schools are increasing in Broward and Palm Beach counties, and across the nation, according to teacher unions.
Pressure from new education laws and continuing stress over the weak economy are to blame for people on campus repeatedly attacking others with words and fists, experts say.
“As you see families falling apart they come to school as adults with a lot of frustration,” said Jerry Newberry, director of National Education Association’s Health Information Network. “Not so much because they are upset with their school, but upset with their life.”
Adult bullying typically takes on the same forms of student bullying, with pervasive actions and behaviors such as teasing, intimidation, physical violence, and sexual, religious or racial harassment.
But unlike cases in factories or business offices, workplace bullying of teachers has the potential to bring down a whole classroom of students along with the victim.
“If a teacher is so demoralized, they might even give up and do their job without motivation,” said Debra Wilhelm, president of the Palm Beach County Classroom Teachers Association. “That definitely has effects on students.”
Along with the academic fallout, students may see adults bullying each other and mimic them, making matters even worse. For all of these reasons, employee unions are pressing management for stronger anti-harassment protections and crackdowns on offenders.
Keith Oswald, Palm Beach County schools’ assistant superintendent for safety, culture, and learning environment, recently proposed a series of staff training programs for campuses with reported problems.
Stress levels are soaring, he says, citing factors such as a completely revamped teacher evaluation system required by the state, and personal financial worries.
“We don’t want people going to work feeling like they are going to be attacked by anybody,” he said. “We have to work to solve these issues. We have to give people coping skills to handle that stress more effectively.”
Even before the economy tanked and state education laws were changed, teachers encountered bullying principals, said Ralph Eckhardt, a Broward Teachers Union representative.
“Some people just don’t know how to manage,” he said.
Six years ago, negotiations between the union and district resulted in strong contract terms that defined “bullying/harassment” and established a process for reviewing complaints about “dehumanizing” gestures and other acts by administrators. There’s also a reference about stopping “upbraiding, insults or interference by a parent” against an employee.
As a result, Broward schools became a national leader in targeting workplace bullying, Eckhardt said.
“We still have a lot of problems,” he said, adding that most verified cases are resolved quietly with either the victim or the bully transferring locations.
Palm Beach County teachers’ contract does not mention worker bullying, but there is a clause about discrimination and harassment that addresses similar issues.
“Employees should be free from unnecessary, spiteful or negative criticism or complaints by management representatives,” it states.
The number of teacher and employee bullying cases is unclear because districts are not required to keep such data. Broward Teachers Union estimates there are up to six complaints per year; the Classroom Teachers Association in Palm Beach County hasn’t placed a number on it, but says an accurate count may be difficult since some of its members fear retaliation for complaining about principals.
“So many people are under so much stress,” Wilhelm said. “You can only take so much.”
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