Sunday, October 14, 2012

Bullying in the Schools...Bullying OF the Schools

We hear so much about bullying in schools, and we're admonished to identify it, call it out, and stop it. In my classroom I the halls I try. I will confront teens who are much taller than I and tell them their behavior is bullying. I explain to my girls that eye-rolling is a form of bullying. I work to make my classroom a bully-free zone. But, what can I do when the biggest bully in my professional life is the elected State Superintendent of Public Instruction? What can I do when I'm the victim, along with other educators, of a woman who believes she has a mandate to intimidate, threaten and abuse public school educators?

Any history of Dr. Janet Barresi's treatment will accidentally leave some episodes out, so I'm going to rely only on my hazy memory. Like many victims of bullying, incidents seem to blend together into a toxic environment where I'm simply waiting for the next metaphorical blow. Wayne Green's reporting for the Tulsa World will fill in the gaps.

It started at Dr. Barresi's first State School Board meeting where she came in ready to pick a fight. That's what bullies do, isn't it? She engineered the situation so members of the Board confronted her refusal to provide the Board with information about her appointees. I listened to the entire meeting -- the yelling, the snide comments on both sides. It was hard to believe that professionals would carry on this way. When Dr. Barresi didn't get what she wanted with the Board, she managed to manipulate the situation to make herself look like a victim (bullies are good at being able to appear the victim when confronted), and got herself a hand-picked Board, one that was to rubber-stamp any of her decisions. She got her appointees, even though they didn't meet the qualifications of the office. But she got what she wanted.

Since then, she's strong-armed the Legislature and the Governor's office to carry out her vision of reform. We now have a law that will flunk third-graders who don't pass the reading proficiency test, despite research that shows this is not in the child's interest. We have a law that has tried to erode due-process for teachers. We have a new teacher evaluation system that is partially based on student test scores. We passed a law that will assign each school in the state a letter grade, A-F. She got everything she wanted. Bullies are good at doing that.

They're also skilled at ignoring their victims' attempts at assertiveness. I attended and spoke at the Public Comments meeting, for the A-F grading, along with district superintendents, principals, central office leaders, legislators, PTA officers. We were there at the meeting. The only member of the OSDE staff attending was the lawyer to pushed 'play' on the tape recorder. Bullies marginalize their victims with their disdain.

Our state waiver from the requirements of NCLB includes a provision that if any of these laws is repealed, our entire waiver is null and void. So, we're trapped, as victims often are, under the weight of her vision.

Bullying other adults, professionals with whom you're supposed to collaborate is inexcusable, but our OSDE completely crossed the line when it chose to bully the very people we're all charged to protect: the students of our state.This summer for the first time graduating seniors were required to pass four End-of-Instruction exams in order to earn their high school diploma. Under pressure from the Legislature, the OSDE set up a process for students and their parents to challenge this process and appeal to the State School Board. We were horrified to learn that in order to do so, students and their parents were required to waive their rights to privacy under the federal FERPA law.  Every one of these students was already traumatized by the state's requirement they not only pass all their high school classes, but they also pass four of seven EOIs. Every one of these students was a story, a special circumstance, a tale of honest endeavors and broken dreams. Every student hoped to have a hearing in front of the State Board to plead his or her case. The price of that hearing? Loss of all privacy. All privacy. I wonder if the OSDE hoped students and their families would be intimidated into silence by being forced to waive their rights. They may have trusted the OSDE to handle their information with respect and sensitivity. Boy, they put their trust in the wrong bunch.

Ostensibly, signing the waiver was to allow the Board to examine school records and make their ruling. Instead of limiting the records to only the Board, the OSDE published private information on its website: name, address, even special education labels! Every year teachers are required to complete training on the privacy act so we never violate a student's rights. Our OSDE had no qualms at publicly embarrassing these students and their families.

But bullies don't worry about niceties. They barrel over people; they do not respect the weak, the hesitant. Instead they gravitate to them and seem to enjoy the power they have over others' lives. After a public outcry complaining of the students' treatment, the OSDE took down the names and identifying information, but only after the Board insisted. OSDE still asserts they did nothing wrong...typical bully behavior.

Bullies' victims become anxious, depressed, and educators in Oklahoma are feeling this. When the victims are our own students and we are powerless to protect them, we feel even more beaten down.  We keep wondering what's next? When's the next attack going to happen? Who will the next victim be?

We didn't have long to wait. The unveiling of the A-F school grades was to be a triumph for the OSDE. They'd railroaded objections, they'd ignored research, requests to slow down the process. They are charting a course unlike other states' grading systems, and they're determined to power through without input. They'd decided what would happen, and they made it clear they would have their way. Then district superintendents banded together. They spoke out. They held a news conference. They stood up to the bully. And, they got called names by the bully and her buddies. The Governor and the Superintendent sounded like mean girls as they called these dedicated professional educators names. The tone of their remarks was snotty at best.

So, Dr. Barresi's hand-picked, rubber-stamp Board stood up to her and voted unanimously to postpone the grand unveiling of the scores, going against the OSDE's wishes. In the kind of flash of anger we expect from bullies, the Superintendent lashed out at one of the Board members after the meeting, shaking her finger in the member's face and acting rudely. Bullies do not like to be confronted and they seldom respond with maturity. In fact, after weeks of threatening districts to silence about the grades, and after the Board voted to postpone the release of the scores, the OSDE contacted all the districts and told them they COULD release the scores, in direct conflict with the Board's vote. Bullies don't like being thwarted.

Two more years. That's how long we have to survive this bully. Two more years. But there's hope. The district superintendents, nearly 300 of them, stood up to her. Her own Board voted against her wishes.

There is hope our days of being victims may be over...Then maybe we can begin to heal.


  1. You put the name on what we all feel! Kudos!

  2. Of all the bullying done by the SDE and Superintendent Barresi, nothing is worse than what they did to the kids at the state board meetings. Whether by design or through incompetence, it's simply inexcusable.

    1. You're absolutely right. I revised to highlight the bullying of these kids. Inexcusable...evil...these are young people whose lives the OSDE is toying with. Thank you for the reminder.

  3. BTW, I finally got around to reading this and I'd mention that it's more likely to be six more years than two if educators don't find a smart, Republican candidate soon.

  4. Once again you eloquently capture so much of what so many are feeling... bullying, intimidation and a loss of professional identity. I do remember that Saturday so well...listening and re-listening to that first Board meeting and the realization of the immediate loss of limbs quickly yanked underneath all of us and yes, most importantly our students. It has been a ridiculously long two years.... Power to the people! Thank you for helping to "name" it because that is a critical step in recovery and renewal.