David, a seventh-grade student, faced relentless bullying from his classmates at a private school in Galveston before switching schools, he said.
Other students teased him about his weight or made cruel comments, he said.
His teacher did little to stop it and sometimes made it worse, he said.
Once, David was talking in class about having gone to church the night before.
“What?” his teacher said. “You go to church and still act like that?”
It made the class laugh, David said.
Another time in art class, someone had stuck a crayon up the sink faucet trying to be funny, he said.
“David, did you do that?” the teacher said. “That’s something you would do.”
These subtle comments are part of the gray area of bullying, which experts described as harassment or aggressive behavior in relationships in which there’s a perceived power imbalance.
A comment that may seem benign to an adult, or dismissed as a harmless joke, can be much more intimidating to a younger student, especially those who have been bullied by others, said Adiaha Franklin, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine and a behavioral pediatrician at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston.
Not black and white
In conversations with teachers across the county, all said they had observed or even been part of treatment of students that could be considered bullying.
Many said they wished they’d been trained in how to handle some situations, such as how to discipline students without belittling or publicly shaming them.
“There are little things we don’t realize could really hurt someone,” a longtime Texas City teacher said.
“We’re adults; we have thick skin and we’ve learned how to cope. Kids are sensitive; they wear their emotions on their shoulder and you don’t know what else they’re going through.”
Teachers may play a back-seat role in bullying by remaining silent bystanders when a student is being bullied, experts said. Teachers also can be victims of bullying by coaches, students or parents.
One survey showed adult educators and administrators intervened when a student was being bullied just 11 percent of the time, Franklin said.
Most don’t bully
Most teachers are positive influences in students’ lives, Franklin said. But there are instances in which teachers can become part of school-place bullying either by belittling students or ignoring them, Franklin said.
School districts across Galveston County reported few instances of teacher bullying complaints brought by students or parents. And there’s little national research into teacher bullying, said Dr. Nekeshia Hammond, a child psychologist in Florida and national bullying expert.
Psychologists, students and other teachers pointed to anecdotal evidence of teacher bullying, often citing incidents when a teacher might criticize a student for not picking up a topic as quickly as his peers.
Bullying by educators typically looks similar to passive-aggressive bullying between students or in workplaces and often is targeted at students who may already be bullied in school, Hammond said.
Hammond frequently works with students who have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or learning disabilities, she said. Students with learning disabilities or behavioral issues are more likely to be subjected to bullying from their teachers, Hammond said.
“I often hear from kids about name-calling by teachers or talking down to their students,” Hammond said. “Other kids are ostracized; they’re treated in a way that makes them feel different from other students without addressing their unique needs.”
A teacher might say, “This is so easy, why don’t you get this?” to a student struggling with a problem, Hammond said. In certain contexts, that kind of language can be very demeaning, she said.
In one instance in the county, a teacher recounted a story about a student forgetting to bring her gym clothes to a physical education class. The student had come to the other teacher upset over the incident other students had witnessed, the teacher said.
“This teacher had made an example of her, going on and on to the class about how she had purposely not brought her change of clothes to get out of exercise,” the educator said. “The girl was in tears and so embarrassed for the rest of the day.”
In some instances, educators have a set of biases against certain students, Franklin said. Teachers are like any other adult and can have similar prejudices, she said. A student could be prejudged because of background, race or gender, Franklin said.
Other times, it may be a child’s reputation, Franklin said.
“Teachers share information about students,” Franklin said. “They could have heard a student was a ‘troublemaker’ from a previous teacher and treat the student differently from the start.”
“Implicit biases are unconscious stereotypical views we have of a group that are not realized but negative.”
A former Hitchcock school district teacher recounted incidents of elementary school teachers disciplining students differently for similar infractions. She perceived that black and Hispanic students often received harsher punishments for misbehaving than white students did for the same actions.
National data backs up her claim. A 2012 federal report by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights found black students faced harsher punishment than their white peers.
Overall, black students in public schools are suspended and expelled at a rate that’s three times higher than that of white children, the data showed.
Black children represent about 18 percent of children in preschool programs in schools, but make up 35 percent of the preschoolers who are suspended more than once, the report said.
Few complaints reported
Local school districts received few complaints about teachers bullying students, officials said.
“Most complaints are teacher-student personality conflicts and most of the time that can be resolved through conversation or schedule changes if necessary,” Texas City school district spokeswoman Melissa Tortorici said.
Few complaints against teachers have gone beyond the campus level to the central administrative office, Tortorici said.
“If that happens, our executive director of Support Services records information, conducts an investigation and then works together with the parties involved to come up with a resolution,” Tortorici said.
If a parent calls with a concern, it is handled like other calls, Dickinson school district spokeswoman Tammy Dowdy said.
“It would be investigated and looked into, probably at the school level,” Dowdy said.
Teachers are not typically trained about bullying, Dowdy said. During new student orientation, districts go over general ethics rules, she said.
“There’s not a specific course to say ‘for the next hour we’re going to talk about bullying,’” Dowdy said.
A part of the lesson plan
Some classroom bullying, either between peers or by adults, could be addressed by deeper social skills training, Franklin said.
Some teachers dedicate a part of the day to teaching students how to interact and be responsible people in social settings, she said. Those instructions can set the environment for a classroom and make it easier for kids to recognize mean treatment, either from other students or educators, Franklin said.
“You can teach kids perspective and how to problem-solve in social situations,” Franklin said.
Part of that is learning how to accept being rejected when you want to play with someone, but it also teaches students to know they should be treated with respect, Franklin said.
The lesson needs to be ongoing, something that’s repeated several times a week, she said.
“To make it a more pleasant school environment for everyone, it has to come from the top,” Franklin said.
“It’s not going to be a pep rally twice a year,” she said. “Interactions and how we treat each other respectfully are going to be something we teach every day.”
‘Teach us what to do’
One high school teacher recalled an experience she had with a student who accused her of bullying. The student was perpetually late to class, which was irritating, she said. But he would also ask questions about assignments that seemed to show he hadn’t been paying attention, she said.
“The student would ask off-the-wall questions, and I would sometimes say, ‘Why are you asking that?’” the teacher said. “I would pick on him a lot.”
The student later told the teacher he felt bullied by her.
“I never saw it as bullying,” the teacher said. “I didn’t think he seemed super embarrassed and he didn’t retaliate. But I stopped doing those things.”
More specific training on how to discipline students in those situations could be useful, she said. Texas City recently gave teachers training information about bullying. That sort of training is beneficial, the teacher said, especially if there were more examples on how to handle common disciplinary situations.
“Some of us may have been bullied as young people — that’s how we were taught,” she said. “But if that’s not working now, teach us what to do.”