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Local teachers fear talk equals trouble

December 23, 1999

This isn't the story I wanted to write for Christmas week, but it's a bit too urgent to put on the back burner:

About two weeks ago, I got a letter from a local woman who described what she said was a pattern of harassment and bullying involving her nephew, a seventh grader in a local middle school.

The boy, she said, had been pulled out of public school for the following reasons:

"1. My nephew was hit and kicked every day while walking from one class to another. This happened in between every class.

"2. Repeated threats from other classmates that they were going to beat him up and kill him.

" 3. Relentless bullying."

The child was described as an honor-roll student - " a kind, sensitive, very well-behaved, very outgoing seventh grader."

Why was he the target of this abuse? It's "a complete mystery," says the aunt.

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Why haven't I identified the school? Because I haven't been able to verify this with anyone with firsthand knowledge of the situation. To bash the school's reputation without doing that wouldn't be fair, especially in view of the fact that one of his close relatives is an employee of The Herald-Mail.

I was given the name of the teachers there, a person I've talked to before and a who I was told could put me in touch with other faculty members who knew as much or more than she did.

We spoke and she left me a message. Don't call them at the school, she said. They'll call you instead, she said. Later I got a message that a group was drafting a statement to send in. Then I got a voicemail message from someone who identified herself as a teacher, but said that because she feared for her job, she couldn't talk to me, Just publish the letter from the boy's aunt, she said.

Do tenured teachers really have so much to fear? Yes, says a teacher I know. A teacher who gets on the wrong side of the principal can find his or her class subject to additional observation and scrutiny, leading to poor evaluations and an eventual finding of incompetence. Better to keep your head down and your lip zipped, they say.

It all seems sad, and a long way from an attitude that would encourage creative people to do their best. But I have to argue that unless someone trusts me to tell me what's going on, things aren't going to change.

Some years ago, when a first-year teacher at Smithsburg High School lost her job after slapping a disruptive students on the back, I invited teachers from all over the county to tell me about their problems with disruptions in the classrooms. I got dozens of responses, and an insight into what today's classroom (and today's parents) are like.

Not one of those teachers' names was revealed by me to anyone inside or outside the paper. That's because I promised that I wouldn't, and because if you burn people like that, word gets around and people stop talking to you on a confidential basis. That's a liability I can't afford, so when I promise to listen to someone's complaint on an "off-the-record" basis, I keep my word.

That's my part. For their part, somebody's got to trust me enough to call me on this matter. My independent look into this situation has turned up a few possible causes, albeit from secondhand sources: The child in question is a little bit small for his age, but is good looking in a way that young girls find attractive. Reportedly, some of the bullying came because a bully's girlfriend paid too much attention to this kid.

Thirty years ago we wouldn't have paid any attention to a schoolyard squabble or worried about a bully's target. The weak had to get tougher, or resign themselves to continuing harassment. Now the schools are expected to compel students to observe a code of behavior that would have been difficult to enforce in the 1950s, much less the "not my child" 1990s.

I'm out of the office on assignment most of this week, but if you'd like to leave a phone message, please call (301) 733-5131, ext. 7622, or e-mail em at bobm@herald-mail.com.


Bob Maginnis is editor of The Herald-Mail's Opinion page.
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