Report: Abuse victims and whistleblowers at New England private schools faced retaliation

 

You've got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be carefully taught

To see how kids may learn their first lessons about unethical organizational behavior, look no further than how some schools respond to instances of bullying and abuse. To illustrate, consider the Boston Globe‘s investigation into how certain private schools in New England have handled reports and allegations of sexual abuse and inappropriate behavior:

The Globe Spotlight Team, in its ongoing investigation of abuses at New England private schools, found at least 15 instances of apparent retaliation against students who were sexually exploited by staffers or against employees who raised concerns about alleged sexual abuse and harassment. Some cases date back decades, while others are quite recent. But all of them are still raw for the people who felt the backlash.

The article begins with a story from the early 1980s about a female student who was asked to leave the tony Buxton School in Williamstown, Massachusetts, after school administrators learned of her relationship with a teacher there. The school did the right thing, in part, by dismissing the teacher. But it also asked the student to basically disappear, reasoning that her presence would be uncomfortable to others, including “the teacher’s girlfriend, who worked there”! The school included the student’s photo in the annual yearbook only because her classmates insisted on it.

As it turns out, this was among the gentler instances of exclusion or payback described by victims and others interviewed for the Globe story about student abuse in private schools:

The retribution, they say, came in various forms, including abusers lashing out at their accusers or enlisting other students to ostracize them, and administrators punishing or expelling students who complained of being victimized.

Readers interested in the Globe‘s investigation may check the articles on the newspaper’s website, but my point here is that when schools respond to allegations of abuse by retaliating against or marginalizing victims, witnesses, and whistleblowers, they also send messages to their students (victims and bystanders alike) that both the abusive behaviors and the inadequate organizational responses are cultural and societal norms, to be tolerated and swept under the rug if necessary.

Of course, private schools that depend on hefty tuition dollars and alumni/ae donations don’t want news about abusive behaviors becoming public, so the morally challenged ones will resort to intimidating and retaliating against victims, witnesses, and others to keep the lid on. One can only wonder if some of their graduates, having learned these “lessons” taught to them by such institutions, will act in the same manner when they assume leadership roles later on in life.

Insurance coverage for online workplace bullying and harassment?

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When safety risks are such that the insurance industry is addressing them, then you know they are both costly and frequent. And so it is with cyberbullying, with at least one major insurer now moving to cover expenses resulting from electronic bullying and harassment.

Jim Finkle, in a piece for Reuters news service, reports that Chubb, one of the nation’s largest insurance companies, now offers a $70/year rider to its master family protection policy, providing $60,000 of coverage “for expenses resulting from ‘harassment and intimidation’ over personal computers, telephones or mobile devices.” Finkle adds:

Covered costs include psychiatric care, temporary relocation services, education expenses, public relations services and cyber security consulting.

The policy kicks in when cyber bullying results in wrongful termination, false arrest, wrongful discipline at a school or a diagnosis of debilitating shock, mental anguish or mental injury.

Right now, the policy rider is available in only four states — “Colorado, Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin” — but the company is taking it nationwide.

Potential coverage for workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment

Although it’s likely that school-related bullying has figured most prominently in Chubb’s decision to offer this policy, the inclusion of wrongful termination and diagnoses of mental anguish or injury generally as triggering events indicates that electronic forms of workplace abuse are also covered.

Of course, this may lead to tricky questions under the policy, as bullying, mobbing, and harassment at work often mix face-to-face, behind-the-back, and online behaviors. Insurance companies are not generally known for generous interpretations of their own policies, so I can imagine some disputes arising over eligible and ineligible forms of workplace mistreatment.

Further evidence

This isn’t the first time that the insurance industry has started to grapple with workplace bullying. Five years ago, I reported that insurance companies are starting to include bullying-related legal disputes in their employment practice liability insurance policies for employers. This development was prompted by the likelihood of workplace anti-bullying legislation such as the Healthy Workplace Bill being enacted.

When it comes to understanding risk assessment, the insurance industry is among the leading indicators. This is all further evidence of growing public understanding about bullying behaviors and their effects on individuals and organizations.

The uses and limitations of “fight or flight” when dealing with bullying situations

daring_greatly

In Daring Greatly (2012), Dr. Brené Brown offers a statement (among many in this excellent book) that speaks volumes:

Our fight or flight strategies are effective for survival, not for reasoning or connection.

As I’ve mentioned previously, I’m taking Dr. Brown’s online course, the “Living Brave Semester,” which includes plenty of lessons from that book. I’ve seized upon this one line because it’s so relevant to targets of bullying in our workplaces, schools, and communities.

The fight or flight response is a normal one when we’re facing immediate threats to our safety, security, and well-being. Such threats trigger the release of stress hormones that prepare us for the challenge ahead. We are put on high alert.

However, as Dr. Brown suggests, fight or flight mode is not good for engaging in reasoning or connection. Instincts can trump reasoning, and a defensive posture undermines connection. Thus, when we’re confronted by bullying behaviors, we may also be prone to making quick, bad decisions and to pushing away or avoiding others who may offer support.

Because I am not trained as a psychologist or therapist, I’m not going to suggest a counseling protocol for bridging the gap between fight or flight on one end, and reasoning and connection on the other. However, I hope that this little insight via Brené Brown helps us to understand why people in bullying situations sometimes react as they do.

People, let’s avoid Peeple like the plague

Screenshot of Peeple website

Screenshot of Peeple website

In this era of online trolling, bash-filled comments sections, cyberbullying, and the like, the last thing we need is a new social media app that invites us to rate and evaluate, well, practically anyone and everyone.

But the creators of Peeple don’t see it that way. Using the creepy (in this context) tagline, “character is destiny,” they are launching a social media site that will allow individuals to rate their friends, co-workers, dates (current or former), family members, and acquaintances. Here’s a snippet from their online description.

Peeple is an app that allows you to rate and comment about the people you interact with in your daily lives on the following three categories: personal, professional, and dating.

Peeple will enhance your online reputation for access to better quality networks, top job opportunities, and promote more informed decision making about people.

Authentic and relevant information about you and others you interact with is paramount to our vision for this app. Users will require a Facebook account to access the application, to verify and validate the minimum age requirement. To prevent multiple and fake profiles users will also need to validate that they are a real person with their cell phone number which will then text them a pin to login with.

I wanted to write about Peeple earlier this week, when I first spied news articles about it and started hearing from others asking my opinion. But I had to resist the pull to launch into an immediate diatribe; waiting a few days was the blogging equivalent of counting to ten instead of replying immediately to something outrageous.

Thankfully, in an excellent columnWashington Post digital culture critic Caitlin Dewey has already written much of what should be said about this new launch:

When the app does launch, probably in late November, you will be able to assign reviews and one- to five-star ratings to everyone you know . . . . You can’t opt out — once someone puts your name in the Peeple system, it’s there unless you violate the site’s terms of service. And you can’t delete bad or biased reviews — that would defeat the whole purpose.

. . . It’s inherently invasive, even when complimentary. . . . One does not have to stretch far to imagine the distress and anxiety that such a system would cause even a slightly self-conscious person; it’s not merely the anxiety of being harassed or maligned on the platform — but of being watched and judged, at all times, by an objectifying gaze to which you did not consent.

Nevertheless, if you scroll through the Peeple website and read Dewey’s full column, you’ll see that Peeple’s co-founders, “Nicole” and “Julia,” think of themselves as pioneering, empathetic entrepreneurs who simply want to make us better human beings. In fact, they even claim to be supporters of the anti-bullying movement:

Our mission is to find the good in you. Peeple has shown active support to the anti-bullying movement by providing users the ability to report other users. Negative comments don’t go live on the app for 48 hours; they simply go into the inbox of the person who got the negative review and then are given a chance to work it out with the person who wrote the review. If you can’t work it out with the person you can publicly defend yourself by commenting on the negative review.

Peeple has already stirred up a hornets’ nest of criticism, and for good reason. This is pretty sick stuff. The sunny worldview presented by the app’s early marketing borders on the delusional. I normally don’t like to use such strongly condemning language here, but this is a terrible idea.

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Bullying Research Network holds 2015 Think Tank in Boston

BRNET logo

BRNET logo

This week I had the pleasure of spending two stimulating, engaging days participating in the Bullying Research Network‘s annual Think Tank, held this year at Boston University. Based at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, BRNET is the brainchild of Drs. Susan Swearer (Nebraska-Lincoln) and Shelley Hymel (University of British Columbia). Its primary focus is to support research concerning child and school bullying:

Designed primarily for researchers, the purpose of this Network is to promote and assist international collaboration among bullying and peer victimization researchers. To facilitate collaboration, we have sponsored an annual bullying research Think Tank and compiled research, news, and resources that are shared online with our members.

Five years ago, Shelley and Sue started the Think Tanks “to discuss emerging research in the areas of bullying/victimization, school climate, peer processes, and effective prevention and intervention efforts for these areas.”

For several years I’ve been a nominal member of BRNET, but not until this local opportunity arose did I have a chance to meet some of these great folks and to get a bit more involved. Throughout the two days, I was a sponge, drinking in a lot of information on school bullying from leading researchers and evidence-based practitioners. On occasion, my expertise in workplace bullying contributed some (hopefully!) useful comparative insights to the exchanges.

Of course, in my head I was constantly comparing school bullying to workplace bullying. As I remarked to a few fellow participants, for someone steeped in workplace bullying, being in a room full of school bullying researchers was like an American’s first visit to England: In many ways the language is the same, but there are sufficient differences to remind you that you’re not in Kansas anymore.

Here are some of the takeaway points and insights that I gained from the two-day gathering:

  • When it comes to conducting studies, the school bullying researchers have much greater access to educational institutions than workplace bullying researchers have to workplaces. Some are working with significant amounts of survey data drawn from multiple school districts. By contrast, the overwhelming share of American employers want nothing to do with opening themselves to studies of workplace bullying that will be published in research journals.
  • Almost every state has enacted some form of school anti-bullying law, and these legal and policy measures vary greatly. Sooner than later, it will be possible to compare the efficacy of these different legal and regulatory approaches. By contrast, only within the last few years have we started to see the enactment of workplace bullying laws.
  • In part because of these laws, school districts across the country are developing and adopting anti-bullying policies and intervention strategies. Here, too, there are, or will be, significant opportunities to compare approaches. By contrast, the current lack of direct liability for workplace bullying, at least in the U.S., means that employers are not fully incentivized to engage in effective prevention and response.

I also took note of concepts and ideas very evident in the school bullying discourse that should have greater presence in our discussions of workplace bullying. Chief among them is moral disengagement, a social psychology term that refers to the process of persuading ourselves that specific ethical standards should not apply to us in certain situations. Moral disengagement is frequently inherent in so much worker mistreatment, abuse, and exploitation.

On a personal level, I was very grateful for the welcoming atmosphere of the Think Tank that made it easy for newcomers to blend in and become a part of the group. It’s always a hopeful sign to experience a warm example of good, smart people walking the talk, and I look forward to staying in touch with them. 

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A Note from Your Host: Summer is in sight

Boston Common (photo: DY, June 2015)

An early June evening in the Boston Common (photo: DY, June 2015)

Well folks, with exams and papers now graded and recorded, my 2014-15 academic year has come to a close. In addition, and most gratefully, I have survived Boston’s winter and early spring, a brutal stretch that played havoc with everyone’s lives and patience.

Along with many others who teach at universities, I am now in summer mode. For me, that means a lot of writing and project work, along with a few program speaking and participation opportunities.

Bullying Research Network, Annual Think Tank, Boston, MA, June 2015

I had the pleasure of spending the past two days participating in the Bullying Research Network‘s (BRNET) annual Think Tank, held this year at Boston University. BRNET is a global network of researchers, most of whom are studying some aspects of school bullying. BRNET’s home is at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and its co-founders are Drs. Susan Swearer (Nebraska-Lincoln) and Shelley Hymel (University of British Columbia).

They created the Think Tank as an annual opportunity for researchers to gather together to share information and insights. I’ll be writing a separate blog post about this program later this week, but for now let me say that I got so much out of being a part of it, and in the process I met a lot of terrific, impressive people.

International Congress of Law and Mental Health, Vienna, Austria, July 2015

In July, I’ll be taking a long plane flight to Vienna, Austria, for the 2015 International Congress of Law and Mental Health, a biennial, global gathering of academicians, practitioners, judges, and students hosted by the International Academy of Law and Mental Health. I’ll be on a panel that examines how therapeutic jurisprudence (TJ) perspectives can be integrated into law teaching and legal education. My paper will examine how TJ can be included in continuing legal education programs for practicing attorneys.

This week-long conference, featuring dozens of panels each day, also provides an opportunity for extended conversations with law professors, lawyers, and others who are committed to reforming our laws and legal systems to be more responsive to mental health and well-being. Through this event, the international therapeutic jurisprudence community creates a sort of “conference within a conference,” with an ongoing series of panels dedicated specifically to TJ themes.

I’ve also added a few extra days in Austria, which will serve as a brief summer vacation. I have not visited the city since 1981, as part of a quick jaunt through western Europe following a semester abroad in England. I’m very curious to see how I will react to the city this time around, through more mature and appreciative eyes.

Projects

I’m currently putting the finishing touches on a law review article manuscript on intellectual activism, drawing in large part upon my own involvement over the past decade or so on issues related to workers’ rights and worker dignity, especially workplace bullying and unpaid internships.

In the piece, I’m setting out a practice model for law professors, lawyers, and law students that starts with a foundational writing, usually a scholarly law review article, that serves as the intellectual basis of investigating a compelling issue of law and policy and concludes with potential proposals for change and reform. The next steps move into a more activist, public mode, engaging in activities such as drafting legislation, supporting impact litigation, and doing public education work.

By early fall, I hope to secure an offer of publication from a law review and post the draft to my Social Science Research Network publications page. (For a preliminary exploration of the ideas I’m developing more fully now, see my 2013 essay, “If It Matters, Write About It: Using Legal Scholarship to Effect Social Change.)

I’ve got a few other writing projects in the works that I’m not ready to preview yet, but I’ll be working on them during the summer months. In addition, I’ll be working on two local fall program plans, (1) a therapeutic jurisprudence workshop for law professors and lawyers; and (2) an event or two in conjunction with Freedom From Workplace Bullies Week in October.

Finally, I’m tying up a loose thread, finishing a coaching training program that I substantially completed last year. I have some written assignments to finish and an oral certification exam. This training has already proven useful to me in understanding workplace dynamics, and in a more applied sense I’ve used some coaching techniques in working with my students.

All of this looks eminently doable from the view of early June! But as we all know, the Endless Summer that the Beach Boys sang about becomes especially fictitious as we get older, so I’d best be as disciplined as I can about this stuff. Here’s to a good and productive summer to all.

U.S. Education Department survey: School bullying on the decline

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education announced survey results showing that school bullying is on the decline. Here’s a snippet of an Associated Press piece (via the Boston Globe):

The Education Department announced survey results Friday that found 22 percent of students age 12 to 18 said they were bullied in 2013. The figure, down 6 percentage points from 2011, is the lowest level since the National Center for Education Statistics began surveying students in 2005.

Could it be that a combination of public education, legal and policy responses, and greater attention by educational stakeholders is making a difference?

Research support

Buttressing these efforts is a growing body of research. For example, the American Psychological Association’s membership journal, American Psychologist, is devoting an issue to a collection of articles examining 40 years of research on school bullying:

A special issue of American Psychologist® provides a comprehensive review of over 40 years of research on bullying among school age youth, documenting the current understanding of the complexity of the issue and suggesting directions for future research.

. . . The special issue consists of an introductory overview . . . by [Shelley Hymel and Susan Swearer], co-directors of the Bullying Research Network, and five articles on various research areas of bullying including the long-term effects of bullying into adulthood, reasons children bully others, the effects of anti-bullying laws and ways of translating research into anti-bullying practice.

Implications for adult and workplace bullying

I dearly hope that this is firm trend. We know that bullying of school-age children can have lasting effects going well into adulthood. Furthermore, kids who become aggressors will sometimes continue those behaviors in family and workplace settings as they grow older.

In terms of looking at school anti-bullying efforts as a whole, perhaps we’re seeing the cumulative effect of many different initiatives. This would make sense. Bullying is not a purely individual phenomenon, and it requires multiple, intersecting, interacting responses to reduce its frequency.

Moreover, those of us in the workplace anti-bullying movement can draw lessons from measures to prevent and respond to bullying in other social contexts. School and workplace bullying have similarities and differences, but ultimately we’re talking about variations on a theme.

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