When Teachers and Coaches Bully…

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Bullying. It’s a serious problem upon which all parties agree must end! Yet, it does not. In my earlier examinations of bullying as one example of Educational Trauma, I focused on 2 parts: The student as victim and aggressor, and the teacher as victim. When I encountered Dr. Jennifer Fraser’s work on teachers who bully, I realized I had been naive to an important component of Educational Trauma. Did you realize that the cycle of bullying doesn’t originate with students, and isn’t germane to childhood? Teaching Bullies is the masterpiece book Dr. Fraser compiled when her son and 13 other students were abused by their basketball coaches.

In Teaching Bullies, Dr. Fraser calls upon parents, educators, and lawmakers to re-think how we view abuse. She demands that neuroscience research and data be considered in the context of emotional abuse. She says that laws protect young people from physical and sexual abuse, primarily because the evidence is visible on the body, and fails to protect them from emotional harm because previously we did not have evidence for damage and harm. This paradoxical claim no longer holds merit since imaging studies of the brain register damage from emotional abuse that resembles that of physical and sexual abuse. Let me restate this: The brains of emotionally abused children show similar patterns of abnormality as the brains of physically and sexually abused children.

As if this weren’t enough to convince us that emotional abuse is damaging, we also have the results of Feliti et al’s 1998 Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s) study which documented the long term negative effects of childhood harm on health and occupational outcomes. Exposure to harm, or an ACE, is correlated with poorer health and occupational problems. The first question on the ACE’s Study Questionnaire is:

“Did a parent or other adult in the household often or very often…Swear at you, insult you, put you down, or humiliate you? or Act in a way that made you afraid that you might be physically hurt?”

In other words, the first adverse experience of childhood that long term health and well-being is negatively correlated with is: Emotional Abuse. Dr. Fraser draws our attention to this study because the questionnaires direct the subject’s attention to “parent” and “other adult in the household,” and notably absent in this question is the role of educators and coaches who spend large amounts of time with children, caring for children. Dr. Fraser is astute to notice this, and please notice ~ this isn’t an average woman urging us to examine teachers and coaches who bully.

Dr. Fraser is an extraordinary woman. When I profile someone in a blog, it’s usually because the depth and clarity of their work impresses me, and adds to my understanding of Educational Trauma. Dr. Fraser brings more than depth and clarity, she exudes brilliance with every utterance and observation. Her skills for decoding the human condition come from the complexity her brain is capable of, as well as her training in literary analysis and creative writing. Although, I am only focusing on her work in the area of Teaching Bullies, you need to know that Dr. Fraser has a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, and is a prolific author and writer. Her first book, Rite of Passage in the Narratives of Dante and Joyce, explored literary initiation; her second book, Be a Good Soldier, investigated modernist novels and their engagement with children, grief, and war. Her trilogy of hard-hitting plays looks at issues that concern youth. These creations are the foundation of skill and creativity upon which Dr. Fraser built Teaching Bullies. In my personal and professional experience, the ability to apply literary analysis and skill to life is like an oracle into the human condition. Dr. Fraser wielded the oracle as she wove Teaching Bullies, and offers us a stunning, shocking, and frightening look at the origin of bullying.

It took me well over a year to commit to reading Teaching Bullies, and then it took me months to finish only because the topic is so painful. While the content will remain a foundational reference for my work for-ever-more, the experience of learning how and why Dr. Fraser decided to apply her analytic skill to teachers and coaches bullying is one of the most terrifying I’ve ever heard – ever! Her son was one of 14 student athletes who came forward and reported cyclical and structural violence arising in the name of sport. After attorneys, clinicians, and independent investigators had detailed the accounts of abuse at the hands of coaches, the students and their families were shamed, humiliated, and further victimized. Emotional abuse is normalized and accepted in our culture, especially when it comes to sports. The coaches that were named in the reports of abuse were protected by their academic institution and continue to work with youth everyday, despite multiple reports of verbal abuse, threats of harm, isolation tactics, and intimidation. One of the ways this situation was dismissed by school administration was by vilifying the athletes and their families as being weak and unable to tolerate tough coaching.

Are you okay with this continuing at an elite K12 institution in North America, in 2016?

I am not.

Neither is Dr. Christian Conte, one of the nation’s most famous mental health specialists, in the area of anger management. He was featured on a television show with former NFL Ravens Linebacker, Ray Lewis on Spike TV, called “Coaching Bad.” On the show, Lewis and Conte teamed up to help terrible coaches with control issues get rehabilitated. In the area of coaches who bully student athletes, Dr. Conte is collaborating with Joshua Chisholm, a father who is a former Marine, with a son brutalized by his football coach. Mr. Chisholm, along with David Lininger, filed a federal complaint in the Northern District of Ohio on behalf of 5 student athletes of St. Mary’s City Schools against 2 coaches, the athletic director, and the superintendent. The complaint mirrors the experience of the 14 student athletes described in Teaching Bullies. Dr. Fraser feels this case has the potential to shift the tide in public awareness and policy because of the father’s immunity against victim whiplash in instances such as this. Victim whiplash happened to Dr. Fraser’s son, his peers, and their families when the school administration failed to protect the students, and reversed attack by claiming they were too wimpy to face tough coaching. A father who is a former Marine does not face this kind of whiplash, and therefore taking this case to the US Supreme Court may just be what is needed to move policy to protect students from emotional abuse and bullying at the hands of their teachers and coaches.

One of Dr. Conte’s approaches to anger management involves “combining radical compassion with conscious education – for the effective treatment of anger issues.” In my opinion, this is at the heart of repairing coaches and teachers who bully. And, Dr. Fraser knows this too because compassion and conscious education are exactly how she portrays the story of her son’s abuse at the hands of coach bullies. She exercises compassion, the ability to identify suffering and the willingness to act to relieve it, when she names teachers and coaches who bully. She acts to relieve this suffering, not only by detailing the medical, social, emotional, and mental turmoil that results from emotional abuse, but also in how she promotes awareness of this phenomenon and demands policy change. Thankfully, I am not the only one noticing her compassionate action. Edupowered honored with their 2016 Anti-Bullying Award for her extraordinary effort to promote conscious education about teachers and coaches who bully.

According to Barbara Coloroso, there is a fine line between bullying and a hate crime. Based on Teaching Bullies, we now know hate crimes are happening in schools, at athletic events. It takes the fierceness of a mother’s love, on behalf of her injured child, to begin the movement of protecting children from teachers and coaches who bully. Hate crimes will not survive the effects of brilliant maternal love and protection.

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