Monday, October 11, 2010

Adults Behaving Badly

When people hear I’m high school teacher they often respond, “Wow, that must be tough!” and it is, but not for the reasons one might think. Americans tend to fear teenagers. The news is filled with stories about teen pregnancy, youth addiction, gang violence, teen suicide, and the rare teen rampage, contributing to the hysteria that all high schools are Columbines waiting to explode, or Blackboard Jungles that eat teachers alive. In reality, youth crime, addiction and pregnancy rates have been in steady decline for years and, for the most part, are far lower than they are for adults. When teenagers are harmed by violence, it is most often at the hands of adults. When teens get pregnant, the father is most often an adult. (See Mike Males, Scapegoat Generation, Common Courage Press, 1996). Grownups are the ones who create misguided education policy and who cut education funding. It is the misbehavior of adults, not kids, that truly makes the job so tough.

My first encounter with adult misbehavior at school occurred midway through my first year on the job. I had one particularly small class of juniors and seniors taking chemistry for the second or third time. I had been working harder than I ever had in my life, spending as many as fourteen hours a day grading papers, contacting parents, writing and rewriting curriculum. Even with all my hard work, there was a handful who had given up and stopped attending. So, on the Friday before winter break, when only two girls showed up for class, I decided it was pointless to teach a lesson, and gave them the period to do as they pleased. They spent most of the period gossiping about boys, their favorite rap artists, clothes and the like. I mostly graded papers and ignored them. However, when I overheard them talking about what a “letch” one of my colleagues was, I immediately butted in.

“What do you mean he is a letch?”

“Well, you know,” replied Carol, a petite, blond-haired Filipina. “He’ll stare at your boobs, and say gross things.”

“What kind of gross things?” I asked.

“Well, one time he told me that I had a pretty bra.”

“And how did you respond to that?”

“I told him to f-off and he told me that was the best offer he’d gotten all week.”

“And have you had similar experiences with this man?” I asked Editha, a slender, African-American girl who was a straight A student.

“Well, there was this time I was in the hallway during passing period and he came up from behind me and squeezed my hips and said, “My, you’re getting chunky.’”

Needless to say, I reported the incident, but not to my principal, who had a reputation of being ineffectual on discipline, and part of a good old boys network that included the accused teacher. Instead, I spoke to a female assistant principal, and the school social worker, both of whom were dismissed the following year. The social worker told me that this teacher had been accused of similar offenses several times over the years by various students and teachers, but had consistently slipped through the cracks and gotten away with it. “I’ve confronted the principal on this twice,” she informed me. “His response was, ‘Oh, that’s just part of Latino culture. Let it go.’ Well, I am Latina and it’s not a part of the culture I grew up with!”

After several weeks, I was called into the principal’s office to discuss the matter. The principal was a friendly, good-looking man, who generally wore the same vacant smile, whether happy or mad. As soon as I was seated he said, “What do you have against this man?”

“Excuse me?” My heart jumped into my throat. I did not go into this meeting expecting justice; but, in my naiveté, I likewise did not expect to have things turned against me. “I barely know the man,” I replied. “I have nothing against him. I simply reported what two students had said to me. I believe I’m required by law to do this. In any case, if students make an accusation that a teacher has sexually harassed them, an investigation should be made.”

“Why did you use the term ‘sexual harassment?’”

I was starting to become unhinged. How could he ask me such a question? Certainly he had read my report. Was it possible he truly didn’t understand what sexual harassment was?

“The accusations made by the girls, the ones in my report, are clearly sexual harassment.” I stammered nervously. “One student accused him of grabbing her by the hips! I don’t think it’s my responsibility to define the meaning of sexual harassment, but this is clearly an example of it!”

He pondered this for a moment. “Well, what do you want me to do about it?”

I nearly exploded. “I expect you to do exactly what school regulations require you to do: investigate, file a report and, if guilty, discipline the man. No more and no less.”

A few days later, the accused teacher approached me in the halls. “How could you make such accusations against me?” He was nearly in tears. “It has ruined my family. It has made me ashamed to come to work. Don’t you know how we do things here? Normally, when you hear rumors about a teacher, you go talk to him first. Ask for his side of the story. Give him a chance to deal with the situation.”

In the end, I never found out what happened. The principal was probably protecting the accused teacher's privacy, which I suppose is fair. Yet somehow my privacy was not protected. So maybe I was kept in the dark for other reasons. In any case, the accused teacher did not stick around. The following year he became the dean of one of our feeder schools, with his own private office and the responsibility of doling out discipline to students referred for behavior problems.

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