Was an Illinois teacher’s suicide related to workplace bullying?

I have a feeling that there’s much more to this story than what the current news coverage is able to tell us, but the Chicago Tribune reports that the Thanksgiving Day suicide of Mary Thorson, a 32-year-old Ford Heights, Illinois school teacher, is being linked to workplace bullying.

Becky Schlikerman reports on a December meeting that pitted some teachers against school board members (link here):

The suicide note that Mary Thorson left centered on frustrations at the school, and her death spurred some of her co-workers to speak out at the public meeting.

Teachers described an atmosphere of fear and intimidation in the two-school district, where little things snowballed over time.

“We don’t feel like we can speak out because we have been intimidated,” teacher Rose Jimerson said at the meeting. “We have signs all over the building about anti-bullying. … Our staff gets bullied.”

However…

Thorson’s suicide is a tragedy, no doubt, but circumstances surrounding her employment status should cause us to withhold firm judgments on what happened. Schlikerman’s article presents two contrasting views of Thorson’s on-the-job performance, with some sources saying that she was extremely popular with students and loved her job, and others saying that she faced disciplinary action for harsh treatment of a student and was distraught about possibly losing her job.

Of course, defaming a bullying target is a favorite tactic of aggressors in these situations. And it’s quite possible that a hostile working environment exists in the school, notwithstanding any demerits on Thorson’s work record. In other words, we need to stay tuned for more details.

***

Related stories about South Hadley, MA teacher Deb Caldieri:

 
 

7 responses

  1. I don’t know who added the big HOWEVER, but I have to add my thoughts/experience. I did poorer and poorer in doing my job before I was terminated. I am certain they were feeling very smug about firing me, but the truth is that people who are terrified become less and less effective on the job as they fall about. All of them, including the union representative who was supposedly helping me felt their actions were vindicated. But I was immobilized after all the abuse. I hope it wasn’t you who added the however, David.

  2. Cheryll, the “However…” is to caution all of us from drawing too firm a conclusion based on one (reputable) news report.

    By contrast, for example, by the time the Kevin Morrissey tragedy at the University of Virginia was going public in 2010, the local newspaper had already done a very thorough investigative piece that dug into the details.

    You and I likely agree on what this looks like. The lawyer in me needs more confirmation, however.

  3. There isn’t another side, if you have ever worked in public education. Administrators lie, and they aren’t held accountable for anything.

    You want to believe she deserved what she got. She didn’t, and any teacher who has been kicked to the curb knows this.

    • Oh, I don’t think that anyone is claiming that a suicide victim “got what she deserved,” not by a longshot. In fact, as I suggested in a comment above, I have a pretty good idea of what this looks like, though I would like to know more.

  4. There are several aspects of this situation which indicate that the teachers in that school face enormous pressures. Several teachers spoke out at the district’s board meeting last month about being harassed for things as basic as taking sick days, and fearing for their jobs were they to need to take a day. That Ford Heights is one of the poorest towns in the US is well-known. Its budgetary woes have been the subject of extensive local reporting.

    Thorson left a six-page suicide note, and all but one paragraph of it was reportedly devoted to the terrible conditions in the school, including extreme poverty and poor management. Her grieving parents, to their great credit, seem to be doing their best to explain her intentions, in spite of the hedging by the Tribune.

    It deserves to be said: what’s happening in schools and to teachers under the so-called reform initiatives goes far beyond workplace intimidations and bullying. The “reforms” begun by President Bush, and extended by President Obama, have had devastating effects on schools, teachers and students that have been intensified by state and local budget crises. Bullying is only one tactic used in the broader strategy of gutting the schools systems and terrorizing a workforce.

    The Tribune, a staunch supporter of these education initiatives, charter schools, privatizations, “merit” pay, pension cuts, eradication of tenure, and the gutting of social services, has to be extremely careful when it reports a story like this–because what’s happening is potentially explosive. The institution of free public education is being dismantled and auctioned off to the jackals of high finance. In order to secure their investment and diminish the public equity in schools, they have to cheapen the labor, which requires de-professionalizing teachers, and take control of the land and schools, which they usually get for a song. This is how public education, perhaps the last remaining symbol of equality in the United States, is being destroyed.

    The process of de-professionalizing public school teachers in the US frequently involves destroying teachers’ careers individually. It takes a terrible toll on people. Cash incentives are put before administrators to ensure they run lean operations, and it’s not unusual for performance ratings and disciplinary channels to be abused in order to get rid of “troublesome individuals” and teachers with seniority. Administrators are encouraged to get creative in wringing concessions, getting people to resign, discouraging teachers from re-applying every year that their position is eliminated and re-named, encouraging them to take buy-outs and retire early without the pension they have been paying into, so that cheap, casual teaching labor can be brought in. Sharp eyes will note a similarity between these and the terms imposed on auto workers after the restructuring of the Big 3 auto manufacturers.

  5. As a teacher I have been bullied for five years in my district. The teachers who spoke were right. There is no accountability for what is written in a teacher’s evaluation by the principal. I thought that the teacher observation and evaluation process should be taken out of the hands of the principal and the district all together. There should be independent agencies that do the observing and post observation meeting. These independent agencies would have no personal feelings about the teacher being observed, they would have the benefit of giving good constructive advice, and of writing a factual evaluation since they would visit hundreds of classrooms in many districts in one year’s time. In this way the process does not become personal. I taught in a school where the principal partied with the younger teachers. I bet you can guess which half of the staff received good evaluations.
    The most frustrating facet of my harassment was that I don’t even know why I was targeted. I knew that I was doing wonderful, imaginative, and creative things in the classroom, making songs, bringing in regalia, finding ways to make lessons interesting. I was relieved to know that most people who are targeted are high-achievers. And this is where the internal struggle goes on, a teacher knows that she is doing more interventions, and creating exciting lessons because her co-workers borrow her ideas, but she is never complemented. On a recent observation my class was just wonderful. They were on task and working hard. I was very proud of them. I was told that two students were humming! If they want to find something wrong they will. I was also told at my post observation meeting that it was good that I was doing these vocabulary lessons. So I said, “Wow, I did something good.” There was no response. This would have been the moment for my principal to tell me that I do a lot of good things. Instead she kept silent because, I can only assume that, she is directed not to tell me I am doing well. When the harassment comes from an upper administration level then you have no one to turn to. Unions are useless. For my last poor evaluation no one read my rebuttal and questioned it. I can understand why teachers are sheep, because they really just want to get into the classroom and let their creative energies flow teaching what they know is important for a student to master, and they don’t want to be the next target. With the stress of NCLB, the social-economic pressures, the lack of funding, the degradation of student behavior, and lessened support from the school district I predict that we will see many more teachers crack from the stress. I had a class one year that I spent every day crying after school. Not once did the principal come to me to comfort me, to show she cared about me. We need to stop the bulling of teachers in the public schools. This is counter-productive to our goal of a stress free educational environment for our children. I suggest; let this be a forum for exchange and change. Let us begin a survey where teachers can answer yes or no to being unjustly evaluated by their superiors. Let us find out how prevalent this virus is… I created a survey. Stand up and be counted, so we can find out the magnitude of this problem and help other teachers who are feeling as distraught as this teacher from Illinois! Go To: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/8H3WLX2

  6. http://www.marythorsondocfilm.com

    A documentary based upon the events which led to this young woman’s death will premiere at The Beverly Arts Center here in Chicago on June 30th, from 4 to 6.

    Immediately following the film, we will have a special celebration for Illinois teachers acknowledging them for all they do. There will be refreshments, musicians, a unique raffle, buttons, wristbands, and everything necessary to promote solidarity among our teachers.

    When teachers suffer in the classroom, there is a domino effect which adversely impacts our children…namely, the students. Please pass this information along to parents, teachers, and anyone interested in the emotional and physical well-being of our teachers and students.

    Kind Regards

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