Two recent events put the best and worst of public education in sharp relief. The first was the death of America’s best known schoolteacher, Jaime Escalante, made famous in the 1988 film, “Stand and Deliver.” In that movie, Edward James Olmos brought to life Escalante’s inspiring story of his firm belief in the abilities of his inner city students at Garfield High School. He did what our best teachers do–he stood up for students, challenging them to strive. Escalante, 79, had bladder cancer.
The second event is a figurative cancer, the inexplicable and disgraceful inaction of an unknown number of teachers and administrators at a public high school in South Hadley, Massachusetts, who were—according to the district attorney–aware of the harsh bullying of a 15-year-old girl by a handful of students and yet did nothing. Multiple felony indictments of nine teenagers were announced last week, all classmates of Phoebe Prince, who hung herself in January. No adults were charged.
Jaime Escalante gained national prominence in the aftermath of a 1982 scandal surrounding 14 of his Garfield High School students who, after they passed the Advanced Placement calculus exam, were accused of cheating. As Elaine Woo wrote in the LA Times, “The story of their eventual triumph — and of Escalante’s battle to raise standards at a struggling campus of working-class, largely Mexican American students — became the subject of the movie, which turned the balding, middle-aged Bolivian immigrant into the most famous teacher in America.” Mr. Olmos, who helped raise money to defray the teacher’s medical costs, said, “Jaime didn’t just teach math. Like all great teachers, he changed lives’.
The teachers and administrators in South Hadley also changed lives, one permanently. The prosecutor said the teenagers’ taunting and physical threats were beyond the pale. Two boys and four girls, ages 16 to 18, face felony charges that include statutory rape, violation of civil rights with bodily injury, harassment, stalking and disturbing a school assembly. Three younger girls have been charged in juvenile court. The taunting and physical threats went on for three months, the District Attorney said.
As the New York Times reported “It was particularly alarming, the district attorney said, that some teachers, administrators and other staff members at the school were aware of the harassment but did not stop it. “The actions or inactions of some adults at the school were troublesome,” Ms. (Elizabeth) Scheibel said, but did not violate any laws.”
No laws were broken? What about fundamental ethical principles? Moral laws? Common decency? Where was South Hadley’s Jaime Escalante? What sort of moral vacuum exists at South Hadley high school? Does this happen at many other schools?
The answer to my last question is, unfortunately, YES. Every day about 160,000 children miss school because they’re afraid of being bullied, according to the National Association of School Psychologists.
Schools are supposed to be safe havens, physically, intellectually and emotionally. We shouldn’t need anti-bullying laws, although at least 40 other states have or are contemplating legislation, and Massachusetts is putting the finishing touches on its own law—after a year of debate and discussion. No doubt we will have federal action as well. One such bill is the Safe Schools Improvement Act, H.R. 2262, which would require schools that receive federal education funding to implement a comprehensive, enumerated anti-bullying policy that also requires schools to report bullying incidents.
These laws are largely aimed at youthful offenders. It seems to me that what’s needed is adult training in how to intervene, as well as sanctions for failure to intervene. Just as adults are required by law to report suspected sexual abuse, so to should they be required to act in clear cases of bullying.
I have some experience with cowardly or indifferent educators on this, unfortunately. As a reporter, I meet students all the time who talk openly about being teased:
“I’m just sick of some people making fun of me because of the color of my skin, or because of what I wear,” said Jessica, a young white girl in a nearly all-black middle school in New York City.
“Kids would make fun of my ears, because they’re big, and I just hated it,” said Charles, 17 years old and about six feet two inches, recalling painful years of merciless teasing by classmates.
“They call me stupid, stuff like that, because I get nervous and start stuttering,” said Carlos, a Maryland high school student, describing how other students react when he tried to read aloud.
“They’d go ‘Hahaha, A.D.D. boy, you can’t do anything right. You’re so stupid,’” said John, who’d been diagnosed with A.D.D. and was on Ritalin.
When students tell their stories to me, a reporter from outside, I often ask, “What happens if you complain to teachers or to your parents?” Usually, the kids tell me, the adults say, ‘Get tough. That’s just normal, so get used to it.’
I’ve heard that before. I remember one of my daughters coming home after being cruelly teased at school. I was concerned enough to visit the head of the school. When I related my daughter’s experience, he nodded. “We’re aware of it,” he said, “and we’re watching to see how it turns out.”
His detached attitude and his unwillingness to stop the bullying infuriated me. “Why isn’t it your job to intervene?” I demanded.
“This is a natural part of growing up,” he said, unfazed, “and kids have to get tough.” We took our child out of that school, because we could. Why keep a child in an institution whose leader believes in going with the flow, instead of taking responsibility? But most parents might not be as fortunate, and besides, they shouldn’t have to move their children. Schools and the adults in them have moral and ethical responsibilities to protect children, whatever the laws may say. Responsible school leaders work overtime to create an environment in which student leaders discourage bullying, an environment which all but shouts out “We don’t do that here.”
Where are the men and women of courage, the Jaime Escalantes? I know they are there. What keeps them from speaking up, shouting if need be? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.