Deb Caldieri, supporter of school bullying victim Phoebe Prince, faces severe challenges today

Deb Caldieri is the former South Hadley, Massachusetts teacher who dared to criticize her school’s response to the bullying behaviors that preceded the 2010 suicide of teenager Phoebe Prince, and then bravely testified before the Massachusetts legislative committee in support of the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill. Sadly, outrageously, today she appears to be paying a heavy price for doing the right thing. Jobless and suffering from multiple sclerosis, she is struggling, as her update — posted to this blog last week and reprinted below — clearly indicates.

If you’re unfamiliar with the full story, read on.

Events of 2011

In 2011, Deb’s situation was championed by Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen, who first broke the story of how Caldieri was being bullied by South Hadley school administrators, and then wrote a follow-up piece:

The persecution and humiliation of Deb Caldieri, the teacher who responded to the suicide of Phoebe Prince with a compassion so utterly lacking elsewhere in South Hadley High School, is complete. She was fired last week.

Gus Sayer, the school district’s superintendent, sent a letter to Caldieri – who went on unpaid medical leave in December because of her multiple sclerosis – saying he couldn’t wait around any longer to see whether the symptoms would subside enough for her to return to work. Those symptoms got worse after Caldieri was punished for speaking out about Phoebe Prince’s treatment at the high school.

Cullen went on to describe the supposed efforts that Sayer made to contact Caldieri to discuss her situation. The full column explains how this played out, as Cullen did an excellent job of interviewing Sayer in an effort to get to the heart of the matter.

Deb received her final termination notice from the South Hadley school system in 2011, just weeks after testifying in support of the Healthy Workplace Bill before a Massachusetts legislative committee. Her testimony attracted statewide media coverage, and it is unlikely that this escaped the attention of the South Hadley school administrators. The timing of her termination — the final step of a long process of pushing her out of a job and career — struck me as being much too close to be a coincidence.

Recent update

I hadn’t heard any news about how Deb was doing until the day before Thanksgiving, when she left a comment on this blog:

I  would like to thank those individuals that wrote in  with their support, those that perhaps  sent a  much  appreciated check early on, and, of course, Professor Yamada, and Greg Sorozan, who originally invited me to speak on behalf of the “Anti-Bulling” Healthy Workplace Bill. I do hope that there is someone still out there who will stumble upon my email and know in their heart and soul how much gratitude I felt to all of just reading your comments today, November 27, 2013.  You see, Phoebe would have turned nineteen on the twenty-fourth. She and my youngest son shared  a birthday. Four years ago is when the sparkle left my little “Vita’s” (her Latin name) because of a tragic event that the law kept hidden… In addition to losing my :”VIta,” I’ve lost my career, income, independence, the use of my legs; my seizures can’t seem to be controlled due to the constant stress, my children (also a single mom) are traumatized; I need physical, occupational, and psychological therapy, and the only money I get from the state is 326.00 in food stamps per/month. So, I choose the days I will eat something..

The final straw is that I am still waiting for a hearing for my “Accidental Disability,” which now has been pushed to the end of February.

p.s. That account was closed at Peoples. Thank you again for your kindhearted donations.

As you can see, she’s going through a very rough stretch right now. I’ve reached out to Deb and offered to help pass the hat on her behalf. If she’s okay with that, then I’ll provide details on this blog. She certainly deserves our support.

In the aftermath of the Phoebe Prince tragedy, a supportive teacher is bullied out of her job

When will they ever learn?

After South Hadley, Massachusetts high school student Phoebe Prince took her own life following a brutal campaign of bullying by her classmates in 2010, one of her supportive teachers — Deb Caldieri — was bullied out of her job by principal Dan Smith and other school administrators.

Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen shares the story (link here):

Her name is Deb Caldieri, and she has been driven from the school as surely as Phoebe was hounded to the grave. Her career and her health have been ruined.

This being South Hadley High, she has suffered all this mostly because she had the temerity to question the way her superiors handled the whole mess.

She didn’t follow the party line at South Hadley High, which from the beginning was to blame Phoebe and excuse the bullies. Phoebe was the outsider, the clueless blow-in from overseas who brought all her troubles on herself. That was the party line.

Cullen’s full column is worth your click-and-read, as he goes into considerable detail about how Caldieri was booted around and now finds herself in a nursing home, struggling to recover her health.

Those familiar with severe workplace bullying and dysfunctional organizations will nod heads in recognition.

Tip of an iceberg

The terrible story of Deb Caldieri should be understood in its broader context: Principal bullying of schoolteachers is a serious problem.

Education professors Joseph and Jo Blase have documented this phenomenon in their groundbreaking 2002 book, Breaking the Silence, Overcoming the Problem of Principal Mistreatment of Teachers (reviewed here).

In addition, the National Association for Prevention of Teacher Abuse (link here) is dedicated to addressing these behaviors through public education and advocacy.


Related posts

I have written extensively about the Phoebe Prince suicide on this blog. For links to additional articles, please go here.

Defendants in Phoebe Prince school bullying case enter plea bargains

In court proceedings covering two days, five of six defendants in the criminal prosecutions stemming from the 2010 suicide of Massachusetts teenager Phoebe Prince have entered into plea bargain agreements to bring the cases against them to a conclusion.

Prince was a 15-year-old student at South Hadley High School in Massachusetts at the time of her death. She was so mercilessly bullied by fellow students (in person and online) that she took her own life.

The Prince tragedy quickly became a national symbol of the harm caused by bullying in schools.

Wednesday, May 4

Peter Schworm reports for the Boston Globe (link here) that two of the individuals who bullied Prince, Sean Mulveyhill and Kayla Narey, entered guilty pleas:

  • Mulveyhill, 18, pled guilty to criminal harassment. He was ordered to perform 100 hours of community service and to serve one year of probation. Charges of statutory rape and violating Prince’s civil rights were dropped in return for the plea.
  • Narey, 18, also pled guilty to criminal harassment and was sentenced to a year of probation. Charges of violating Prince’s civil rights were dropped.

Mother’s anguished statement

Schworm reports that Anne O’Brien, Prince’s mother, delivered a victim impact statement in which she “lashed out” at Mulveyhill, accusing him “of being in a ‘predatory’ relationship with her daughter.” She “described her grief as an ‘unbelievable pain’ that will never subside.”

Although O’Brien signed off on the plea agreement, friends and family in Ireland (from where Phoebe emigrated) are outraged over the plea deals, believing that stiffer sentences were merited, report Marie Szaniszlo and Christine McConville for the Boston Herald (link here).

Go here for a Globe video story including O’Brien’s statement.

Thursday, May 5

The Herald‘s Marie Szaniszlo reports on three more guilty pleas taken the next day (link here)

In Franklin-Hampshire Juvenile Court, Sharon Velazquez, Flannery Mullins and Ashley Longe were sentenced to less than a year’s probation after they admitted to sufficient facts to misdemeanor charges in connection with Phoebe’s Jan. 14, 2010, death.

In addition, charges of statutory rape against Austin Renaud were dropped, with Phoebe’s family supporting the decision.


Previous blog posts

The school bullying suicide of Phoebe Prince, age 15

On Phoebe Prince: Divergent accounts of a tragedy

Newsweek on bullying and related behaviors

On Phoebe Prince: Divergent accounts of a tragedy

The school bullying suicide of Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old Massachusetts high school student, has attracted national attention.  Six high school students stand indicted for alleged offenses related to her death.  For all of us interested in the harm caused by bullying behaviors in any context, this has been an unfolding story of interest. Especially with recent accounts of suicides tied to workplace bullying, our attention is ever more drawn to how abusive behaviors may lead to ultimate tragedies.

As we might expect, initial news reports about the death of Phoebe Prince did not delve into the background behind this tragedy. Standard accounts — this blog included — described the situation as one of a group of mean-spirited high school kids who ganged up on her until she couldn’t take it any more.

Since then, however, investigative writers have been digging into what happened, and the stories they are telling are not necessarily in sync with the prevailing narrative. Here are two worth reading:

Salon — Emily Bazelon

It was predictable that we’d see the “historical corrective” piece that contests the standard news story about bullying leading to Phoebe’s death. An investigative series by Emily Bazelon for Slate magazine (pdf version here) tells a different story of life at South Hadley High, both in general and for Phoebe Prince. That story includes some critical aspects of Phoebe’s own behavior, which included self-cutting and other attempts to harm herself.

Bazelon places great stock in claims by kids at Phoebe’s high school that accounts of bullying were exaggerated.  There was no organized campaign of bullying, she suggests.  She portrays Phoebe as a sort of young femme fatale who was able to swoop in on the popular boyfriends of older girls, suggesting that Phoebe, not the other kids, held the real power in the context of the school culture.

Blaming the victim?

Bazelon has been criticized as blaming the victim, and I found myself reacting along those lines at times.  In examining the very messy and messed up social milieu that one finds at many an American high school, she implicitly appears to be siding with the in-crowd. She paints Phoebe as the disturbed Other, which has the effect of distancing us from understanding how it may have felt to be in Phoebe’s shoes.

Is prosecution appropriate?

More persuasive is Bazelon’s suggestion that the District Attorney in the case may have rushed to judgment in the face of national publicity.  She makes a good case that the kids who bullied Phoebe likely had no idea that their actions could have such dire consequences.

Bazelon’s more forgiving attitude toward the students who tormented Prince isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  She reminds us that we’re talking about teenagers here, and that it’s easy to become the mob we claim to abhor.

Boston Magazine — Alyssa Giacobbe

While Bazelon’s article has its merits, I find more insightful a thorough investigative piece by Alyssa Giacobbe for Boston Magazine.  Giacobbe places the Prince tragedy in the context of the school’s overall culture, which includes previous instances of bullying at South Hadley High School that are underplayed in Bazelon’s account.

Pack behavior sans marching orders

By simply laying out the facts, Giacobbe demonstrates how pack behaviors can occur without explicit marching orders from a titular leader.  These kids — connected by existing relationships — bullied Phoebe, perhaps in the absence of an orchestrated campaign to do so.  (Recently an anthropologist friend, in an unrelated conversation, recalled philosopher Michel Foucault’s concept of a strategy without a strategist, and the Phoebe Prince situation immediately came to mind.)

Bazelon and Giacobbe may agree that Phoebe Prince wasn’t subjected to a coordinated, orchestrated, organized effort to destroy her.  But Giacobbe, much more than Bazelon, appears to understand the group behavior dynamic by zeroing in on the frequency and intensity of the harassment directed at Phoebe by a group of kids with strong social connections.

Like a lot of teens

Was Phoebe Prince a carefree, All-American teenager living a storybook life before a group of bullies came around?  That would make for an easy story, but that’s not the case, and — if we’re being honest with ourselves — we know that a lot of children at the typical American high school do not fit that description. Instead, her story is grittier and more complex — that of a kid with some real issues who should be alive today.

The role of the law

The prosecution of the teenagers connected to Phoebe Prince’s suicide calls into question the appropriateness of using the criminal justice system to address bullying situations, whether in school or the workplace.  Obviously in cases involving physical harm, criminal laws may be implicated.  But they should be applied carefully.

For the most part, existing school bullying laws and proposed workplace bullying laws involve civil, not criminal, sanctions.  This is how it should be.  For reasons ranging from the complexities of many alleged bullying situations, to the realities of expecting already overburdened prosecutors to investigate such allegations, it would be undesirable to turn most claims of bullying into criminal matters. Personally, I would like to know more before deciding whether the criminal charges in the Phoebe Prince case were merited.

In the meantime, I feel some comfort in the fact that the issue of school bullying prodded the Massachusetts legislature to enact a law that some have praised as a potential model. Historically speaking, Massachusetts is known for its firsts, but this isn’t one of them. It has lagged behind the nation in recognizing school bullying as a threat to the health and safety of kids. But hopefully it now is addressing this problem in the right way.

The school bullying suicide of Phoebe Prince, age 15

Phoebe Prince was a 15-year-old girl at South Hadley High School in Massachusetts who was so mercilessly bullied by fellow students (in person and online) that she took her own life.

With the indictments this week of six young people who allegedly played a role in her abuse, this story is gaining national attention as a tragic example of school bullying.  You can Google her name and find plenty of news coverage (the Boston Globe is actively pursuing the story), but I want to center on one aspect of what happened, or more accurately, didn’t happen.

Prior knowledge

In announcing the indictments, district attorney Elizabeth Scheibel acknowledged that administrators, faculty, and staff at South Hadley High School had been aware of some of the behaviors being directed at Prince prior to her suicide.  As reported in the Globe:

“The investigation has revealed that certain faculty, staff and administrators of the high school also were alerted to the harassment of Phoebe Prince before her death,” the district attorney said. And “prior to Phoebe’s death, her mother spoke with at least two school staff members about the harassment Phoebe had reported to her.”

…”From information known to investigators thus far, it appears that Phoebe’s death on January 14th followed a tortuous day for her, in which she was subjected to verbal harassment and threatened physical abuse,” Scheibel said.

…”The harassment reported to have occurred that day in the school library, appears to have been conducted in the presence of a faculty member and several students, but went unreported to school administrators until after Phoebe’s death,” Scheibel said.

A sad, recurring story

This is a recurring story in school bullying situations: Schools are made aware of what is going on, yet little or nothing is done to intercede.  In most instances, thankfully, the absence of adult intervention does not lead to suicide.  However, many severely bullied children carry these bruises and scars for years, perhaps for a lifetime.

Monitoring behavior in the modern American school is a tremendously difficult task, especially now that many kids have an online life that may be shielded from their teachers and school officials.  We can’t put it all on the schools — it takes a village, right?

In this case, however, it appears the school was receiving warning signs.  The lack of an effective response is developing into a major piece of this story and raising questions about the ethical and legal obligations of schools to address bullying behaviors.

You’ve got to be taught

One thing is clear: Kids are learning early in life that organizations often will not intervene when confronted with reports of mistreatment.  They are taught to think, if the folks in charge aren’t going to do anything, then why should I get involved?

This pattern also carries into our adulthood.  How many employers ignore, or are complicit in, the commission of bullying, harassment, and discrimination?  How many workers quietly acquiesce as a co-worker is mistreated?

We have some evidence of what happens at work through the landmark 2007 public opinion survey on workplace bullying conducted by the Workplace Bullying Institute and Zogby International pollsters.  One of the key findings in the survey is that when workers report bullying behaviors to their employers, 62 percent of the time the employers either ignore the situation or make it worse.

School bullying legislation

The only shred of a silver lining to emerge from Phoebe Prince’s death is that support is mounting for a strong school bullying bill in Massachusetts.  Recently the Massachusetts House unanimously approved a school bullying law, and  it appears that this legislation finally has gained the traction it needs to become law.  How pathetic that it took a tragedy of this magnitude to provide that impetus.


Boston Globe article on indictments of 9 teens and prior knowledge of school officials

More from the Globe on community reaction and school’s response

South Hadley school superintendent disputes DA’s claims about lack of response

WBI/Zogby survey

Related post, “Are girls getting meaner?”


Also, courtesy of Gary Namie at the Workplace Bullying Institute blog, this guest post by California school administrator Matt Spencer on how workplace bullying in school settings affects the educational experience of students.


April 24 update: The Boston Globe reports that the South Hadley schools have released a draft of an anti-bullying policy:

South Hadley schools have drafted a new antibullying policy that requires all staff members to report “any bullying they see or learn about’’ and pledges to “promptly and reasonably’’ investigate any allegation of harassment.

The draft policy defines bullying as acts that cause physical or emotional harm, place students “in reasonable fear of harm,’’ or create an “unwelcoming or hostile environment at school for another person.’’

May 3 update: The Boston Globe reports that Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick has signed a school bullying bill:

The law prohibits any actions that could cause emotional or physical harm to students, including text messages and taunting over the Internet. It also mandates antibullying training, for faculty as well as students, and requires that parents be informed of incidents at school.

It also requires every school employee, including custodians and cafeteria workers, report incidents of suspected bullying and that principals investigate each case.

For additional commentary on the enactment of the Massachusetts law, see my post, “It took the death of a child.”

Workplace bullying, the Healthy Workplace Bill, and the “poster case”

(Drawing copyright Aaron Maeda)

On many occasions during my years of drafting and advocating for the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill, I’ve been asked, so, what’s your poster case?, or something along those lines.

This is an important topic, even if the term is somewhat coarse.

First, a bit of vocabulary: “Poster case” is a modification of the term “poster child,” the latter defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “a child who has a disease and is pictured in posters to solicit funds for combating the disease.” Merriam-Webster then offers a secondary definition closer to what we’re talking about in this context: “a person having a public image that is identified with something (such as a cause).”

The substitution of the word “case” clarifies that we’re talking about a legal or legislative setting. Accordingly, a poster case instance of workplace bullying and mobbing is one that neatly and compactly captures the essential dynamics of severe work abuse and clearly shows the need for stronger legal protections in the form of the Healthy Workplace Bill.

Phoebe Prince

A decade ago, Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old girl at South Hadley High School in Massachusetts, was so mercilessly bullied by fellow students (in person and online) that she took her own life. This tragedy galvanized public attention to school bullying, and it played an influential role in reviving a school anti-bullying bill that had been languishing in the state legislature. The bill suddenly picked up great momentum and was enacted into law.

Over the years, legislative staffers and others close to the policymaking process have quietly told us that passage of the Healthy Workplace Bill would be hastened if we had a “poster case” like that of Phoebe Prince — in other words, a deeply sympathetic individual who died by suicide associated with bullying at work.

In addition…

Those of us who have been advocating for law reform are acutely aware of suicides associated with workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse. Surviving family and friends of these bullying targets are among the readers of this blog. Their stories are heartbreaking and outrageous, and they are sometimes invoked in support of the Healthy Workplace Bill. For various reasons, no single instance has captured public attention sufficient to push the bill over the top, in the way that Phoebe Prince’s story gave decisive impetus to the school bullying law.

In any event, we must continue to broaden our focus, to include, but go beyond, these tragic suicide narratives. Countless numbers of bullied and mobbed workers are living with their experiences every day. Their experiences must always be given voice as well.

Here in Massachusetts, the Healthy Workplace Bill is once again before the state legislature, filed by Senator Paul Feeney for the 2021-22 session. Please go here to see the bill, currently designated as Senate Docket No. 2426. And if you live in Massachusetts and are so inclined, please contact your state senator and state representative (link here) and ask them to co-sponsor the bill.

Workplace bullying in the educational sectors: First-person accounts

Given the frequency and severity of workplace bullying in the educational sectors — from primary through post-secondary — I wanted to share two items of possible interest:

Higher education

First, The Guardian, my favorite British newspaper, has run a first-person piece on the experience of being bullied in higher education. Here’s the lede:

Bullying is rife in academia – and it is tolerated to an extent that wouldn’t be acceptable in other areas. I’ve seen careers wasted in academia just by bad management and bad practice. My story is an illustration of what can go wrong.

The story intertwines the writer’s difficult personal circumstances and bullying at work, a not-uncommon combination, and it shows the deeper contexts in which these behaviors arise.

For those interested, The Guardian also is sponsoring an anonymous survey on bullying in higher ed that can be accessed from the article, the results of which will be used in the newspaper’s research study on the topic.

K-12 education

Torii Bottomley, an educator in the Greater Boston area, has shared her story of workplace bullying in a short video produced by the Moral Courage Channel:

This is one of many accounts I’ve heard over the years about bullying of teachers at the K-12 levels. It’s a terribly serious problem, and the most horrific stories are like something out of a dystopian novel.


Related posts

Workplace bullying and mobbing in academe: The hell of heaven? (revised 2014)

Educator finds renewal after being bullied at work (2014)

Deb Caldieri, supporter of school bullying victim Phoebe Prince, faces severe challenges today (2013)

UMass Amherst launches campus-wide anti-bullying initiative (2013)

Legal and public policy challenges facing public schoolteachers: A brief report from Memphis (2012)

Maryland teachers sue for bullying and harassment (2012)


World Suicide Prevention Day, 2014: Ties to work, bullying, and the economy


This Wednesday, September 10 has been designated World Suicide Prevention Day by the International Association for Suicide Prevention (IASP), an agency associated with the World Health Organization. You’ll find a wealth of resources related to suicide prevention awareness and education on the IASP’s dedicated webpage. And you also can access a copy of the WHO’s 2014 report, Preventing suicide: A global imperative, available in several languages.

What does this have to do with a blog about workers and workplaces? As longtime readers know, a lot. Conditions at work, especially severe workplace bullying, have been linked to suicides and suicidal ideation. The global economic meltdown has been associated with rising suicide rates as well. Here are some of my previous posts on suicide as related to bullying (both workplace and school) and the state of the economy:

U.S. Army’s investigation on toxic leadership may yield valuable insights on bullying/suicide risks (2014) — “The United States Army is taking a hard look at the effects of toxic leaders on the mental health of soldiers, and the results may yield valuable insights on linkages between bullying behaviors and suicidal tendencies.”

Suicide and the Great Recession: Will we heed the tragic warnings? (2013) —  “In this era of the Great Recession, suicide has become a leading cause of death in America, especially among the middle-aged, and it is to our shame as a society that this reality is not an ongoing, dominant focus of our attention. Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report documenting the alarming crisis….”

News report: Teen suicide in Japan followed virulent peer and adult bullying (2012) — “One of the most disturbing stories about a teen suicide linked to bullying comes from Otsu, Japan, where a 13-year-old boy was savagely bullied by both classmates and teachers before taking his life. The death occurred in October, but the story has just gone public.”

Suicides spike as Europe’s economy crumbles (2012) — “The meltdown of the European economy has been linked to rising suicide rates of workers who see no escape from their plight.”

Friends and families of workplace bullying suicide victims support Healthy Workplace Bill (2011) — “If you’re wondering about the terrible impact of workplace bullying on targets and their family and friends, a recent press conference in New York hosted by advocates for the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill put the question front-and-center. Among the speakers were Maria Morrissey, sister of Kevin Morrissey, an editor for the Virginia Literary Review who committed suicide last July; and Katherine Hermes, friend of Marlene Braun, a California park service employee who committed suicide in 2005.”

Following suicide of Rutgers student, N.J. Senator to introduce anti-bullying legislation (2010) — “Following the suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi after images of him engaging in an intimate encounter with a man were posted to the Internet, U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) has stated that he will introduce legislation requiring colleges and universities to develop anti-bullying and harassment policies.”

Media tracks workplace bullying angle in suicide of Virginia journal editor (2010) — “The July 30 suicide of Virginia Quarterly Review editor Kevin Morrissey…, reportedly due to workplace bullying, has become the subject of growing media attention. Especially for those who are studying linkages between bullying and suicidal behavior, as well as instances of bullying in academe, this developing story merits your continued interest. In addition to Robin Wilson’s Aug. 12 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education and accompanying online comments, here are two more recent and extensive news accounts. You’ll find my interview remarks in both….”

Are suicides of French Telecom workers related to workplace bullying? (2010) — “(H)ere is a report from Matthew Saltmarsh of the New York Times on an investigation in France of some 40 suicides of French Telecom employees that may be related to bullying at work….”

Global news about workplace bullying and the law (2010) — “Four workmates of a young waitress who killed herself by jumping off a building have been convicted and fined a total of $335,000 over relentless bullying before her death. Brodie Rae Constance Panlock, 19, was subjected to the humiliating bullying by workmates at Cafe Vamp in Hawthorn, in Melbourne’s east, before she threw herself from a multi-storey car park in September 2006.”

Workplace bullying suicide of Jodie Zebell, age 31 (2010) — “This week, a Wisconsin state legislative committee deliberating on the Healthy Workplace Bill heard about the 2008 suicide of Jodie Zebell, who took her own life after enduring months of workplace bullying at the clinic where she worked as a mammography.”

The school bullying suicide of Phoebe Prince, age 15 (2010) — “Phoebe Prince was a 15-year-old girl at South Hadley High School in Massachusetts who was so mercilessly bullied by fellow students (in person and online) that she took her own life.”


Suicide prevention resource in the U.S.

If you or someone you care about is having suicidal thoughts, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached around the clock at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). In addition, you can go to a hospital emergency room and ask for help.


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Understanding the Holocaust (and why I’m writing about it in a blog about workplaces)


Over the weekend I read Elie Wiesel’s Night (1958; new translation 2006), a defining personal account of life and death in Nazi concentration camps. Even with a Preface, Foreword, and Wiesel’s 1986 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech included, the book comes out to less than 150 pages, so this hardly counts as a reading marathon. Nevertheless, my intention was to start it on Saturday evening and to finish over the coming days. But once I began reading, I kept going until reaching the end early Sunday morning.

As an amateur student of history, I’ve read a lot of books and watched many films and documentaries about the World War II era, including the Holocaust. However, what should’ve been so self-evident to me beforehand finally sank in as I read NightWe need to understand the Holocaust because there is no more documented, memorialized, and analyzed chapter of widespread, deliberate, orchestrated human atrocity in our history. If we want to grasp how human beings in a “modern” era can inflict horrific cruelties on others  — systematically and interpersonally — then the Holocaust is at the core of our understanding.

I know there are many other episodes of genocide and oppression that we must consider. The Armenian Genocide of 1915. Rwanda in 1994. America’s history with slaves and Native Americans. The list goes on. But for a variety of reasons, the scale and driving hatred of the Holocaust, and the body of remembrance, documentation, and interpretation about it, are singular.

About bullying, mobbing, and workplaces

Allusions to the Holocaust, Nazis, Hitler, and the like must be offered carefully. This includes discussions involving employee relations. Even terrible workplaces are not concentration camps. But I respectfully suggest that these comparisons are important and useful when severe workplace bullying and abuse are under examination.

Barbara Coloroso is an internationally recognized authority on school bullying whose work also has extended into the general realm of human rights. She recounts in her 2007 book Extraordinary Evil: A Short Walk to Genocide how she used a talk at the University of Rwanda to explain “how it was a short walk from schoolyard bullying to criminal bullying (hate crime) to genocide,” invoking the roles of aggressor, bullying target, and bystander.

In 2010, when Coloroso spoke to a group of South Hadley, Massachusetts, residents and school officials in connection with the much-publicized bullying-related suicide of high school student Phoebe Prince, she referenced this theme and distinguished bullying from ordinary conflict. As reported by Hannah McGoldrick:

“Bullying is the dehumanizing of other human beings with intent to harm,” Coloroso said yesterday during her third talk in South Hadley.

Coloroso, who did work in Rwanda during the mass genocide, explained that genocide “dehumanizes” people in the same way bullying does to “targeted” children.

“There is no remorse [in bullying]; it’s contempt for another human being,” she said. “As adults, we fail to distinguish the difference between conflict and bullying.”

Coloroso then explained that bullying, like genocide, cannot be resolved through conflict resolution.

Kenneth Westhues, the University of Waterloo sociologist whose case studies of mobbing in academe are worth the concentrated study of any serious student of workplace abuse, uses the term “elimination” to describe the process of removing targeted professors from their jobs. Ken also draws comparisons between severe mobbing behaviors at work and perpetrators of larger-scale eliminations and genocides, including the Nazis.

Philosopher Hannah Arendt invoked the phrase “banality of evil” to describe how Adolf Eichmann served as one of Hitler’s architects of the Holocaust. Since then, the phrase has come to represent — in more generic terms — how ordinary people become easily invested in the values of a morally bankrupt status quo and participate in terrible behaviors that seemingly are unthinkable in civilized society. These insights teach us a lot about how bureaucratic enablers of abusive bosses can help to facilitate the destruction of a bullying target. These professional handmaidens (usually HR folks and employment lawyers) are more than simple bystanders; rather, they are complicit in the abuse.

I have distinguished a form of mistreatment that I call “puppet master” bullying from situations that appear to be mobbings. In 2012, I wrote:

Let’s start with…puppet master bullying. In these situations, a chief aggressor’s power and influence over a group of subordinates may be sufficient to enlist their participation in mistreating a target, creating what looks and feels like a mob. For example, if the aggressor is a mid-level manager, he may recruit HR to help out with the dirty work and encourage the target’s peers to shun or bully her.

…By contrast, genuine workplace mobbing occurs when the malicious energy is shared among the many, who proceed to go after the few. It may have started as puppet master bullying, but regardless of its origins, this is now a mob, with individuals owning that animus in ways that fuel each other’s antipathy toward the target.

In cases of puppet master bullying, removal of the “master” has a dramatic effect: “Typically, much of the malicious energy that fueled the puppets fades away, and so with it much of the bullying behavior.” Surely conditions in Nazi Germany help us to understand this line between bullying and mobbing, even though the behaviors differ significantly in scale and impact.

And back to Night

Wiesel experienced Nazi concentration camps as a teenaged boy, yet the stories he shares do not require a more mature moderator beyond the author’s voice. In Night you will see extreme cruelty, calculated psychological terror, bystander inaction, the breakdown of civility and society, and willful ignorance and denial, along with acts of kindness, love, bravery, and self-sacrifice. It is good that this book is a short one; anything more might be overwhelming.

In any case, Night is definitely worth the time of anyone who wants to understand how the extreme realms of cruelty exist in modern society, in small and large ways. I wish that I could say that our workplaces are free of such behaviors, but that would not be true.


Related posts

“Puppet master” bullying vs. genuine mobbing at work (2012)

Cassandra calling: Margaret Heffernan’s “Willful Blindness” (2011)

Does the Holocaust help us to comprehend targeted, malicious workplace bullying? (2011)



Educator finds renewal after being bullied at work

Recovering from sustained, targeted workplace bullying is hard enough. But discovering a sense of renewal in the aftermath can be even more of a challenge. Still, people can and do reach that higher level.

For example, educator and school counselor Kim Werner recently posted this to her Facebook page, which I reprint in full, with her permission and my thanks:

Three years later after the abuse, the sun is fully shining.

Eagerness. Enthusiasm. I awoke with both today. I haven’t always. Since 2008, I’ve often gotten up with fretfulness, bitterness, and blame. I’ve gotten up worried about life in general; its unfairness: cat puke on the patio for example; homework not done, clothes not laundered….and bullying bosses to face. I didn’t understand that my approach to life’s other “stuff” was exacerbated by the daily–Monday through Friday–worry of “what-will-happen-today?” at my school.

My former principal targeted me for bullying– pure and simple. But it’s not his bullying about which I write today, for I have spent hours and hours dissecting my horror for myself and for you. It’s the effects of his bullying on the rest of my life–and the realization now, three years later–of the effect his disgusting behavior would have had on me now in 2014 had I not taken a medical leave then. Had I not reported his abuse. Had I stayed.

So what is it like to get up in the morning and know you stand no chance of pleasing your boss? Know that you are considered a problem? Know that he does not work alone? Know that some of your co-workers take great delight in his daily torture of you? Know that others folded long before he “found you” and there will be no support from them? Know your health and your career are in danger?

What is the rest of your life like? How does this kind of injustice at your job affect your family? Your marriage? Your joy? Your happiness? For workplace bullying is not something that turns on and off like a faucet. It doesn’t disappear at 3:00 p.m. as you walk to your car in the school’s parking lot. Oh no. There is no respite for a target of abuse. Breath is always short, for you are always on guard. Your heart rapidly beats and flutters for he is always waiting around the next corner of your mind. He will surprise you. He’ll jump out of a brain cell as you are cooking dinner and helping with homework. He’ll cackle and laugh in your head–you can see over and over the spittle flying from his mouth as he chortles–as you carefully apply makeup. Oh if only you could hide behind that mascara and that blush! But no.

Workplace bullying, like water torture, drip-drip-drips into the most silent and still times of your life. Workplace bullying floods your mind and your heart at night with worry. Sometimes you feel that you are drowning; that your head is barely above the water line. It’s exhausting, yet you cannot sleep for, as I’ve just written, when you lie down the flood gates open.

“Just do what he says and you will be okay,” his friend, the other school counselor with whom he rode to work told me when I first started at that school. Perhaps it was her frown and furrowed brow–a shake of her well coiffed head–as she sat in the passenger’s seat of his vehicle and discussed her “concerns” about me that generated his “we have to talk; there have been complaints” menace.

Had I, in 2008, 2009,and 2010, done “what he said” I would not, however, be okay. Doing “what he said” would not have protected me. I would not have been okay. I would not have been okay because doing “what he said” meant lying and cheating and participating in things so ugly and awful–testimonies against fellow teachers and documenting things never done–that, although I am not such a “goodie-two-shoes,” I simply could not do it.

Not doing “what he said” was the most difficult professional thing I have ever done.

So, it’s only now, three years later–awakening with enthusiasm and eagerness–in spite of cat puke and clothes not laundered–that I feel fully “okay”; more than okay–back to my former self–joyous and happy.

Add grateful, then, to my “wake up” virtues. They’ve been a long time returning.

And don’t forget to check out her website, A Piece Full World, dedicated to fighting workplace bullying in K-12 educational settings. You also can contact her via the website.

Related posts

Workplace bullying: Recognition, response, recovery, renewal (2013)

Deb Caldieri, supporter of school bullying victim Phoebe Prince, faces severe challenges today (2013)

Legal and policy challenges facing public school teachers: A brief report from Memphis (2012)

Maryland teachers sue for bullying and harassment (2012)

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