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Students with Learning Disabilities at Risk for Teacher Bullying

We learned from other students’ testimonies that our son was regularly hauled up in front of the basketball team for one-on-one sessions with the coach who would yell rhetorical questions in his face along the lines of “Do you even like basketball? Do you even deserve to play? You’re the best player out there, you’re not trying!” According to student reports, when our son tried to get away, the coach would restrain him for more in-the-face humiliation. The other coach would watch. Students reported that they wanted to stop what was happening, but they felt powerless because the bully was a teacher and he was their coach.

Our son has a Learning Disability and according to the experts, as recorded in government documents on bullying and child abuse, he is more vulnerable and at risk because of it. He’s less likely to speak up and defend himself [1]. However, when we submitted the students’ reports to the Commissioner for Teacher Regulation, the teacher’s conduct was not publicly addressed, nor were future students seen as needing protection. This kind of teacher conduct was condoned.

Our son has Dysgraphia. It was identified when he was finishing grade 6 and he was so relieved because it meant that his learning frustrations could be remedied with access to a computer and extra time on tests. Dysgraphia means in layman’s terms that the student has no problem reading, but finds it challenging to put ideas into words especially under time pressure. Our son also discovered that he was more of an auditory learner. So when he listens to a book, his recall is almost perfect; whereas when he textually absorbs material, the recall is more challenging. His auditory learning style may have made him more sensitive to adults’ yelling.

As an eleven year old, he informed the Educational Psychologist who did the testing for his learning disability that he felt very anxious about his basketball coaches because they were constantly yelling. The Educational Psychologist was concerned and said that I should speak to the coaches about their approach about how it was negatively impacting our son. I wrote an email to them and touched base with the Athletic Director at the school to see if they could accommodate our son’s sensitivity to yelling as a coaching method. Neither coach responded to my email, but when I encountered one of them in passing, he yelled at me in a fury that I would dare ask for our son to be shielded from their way of coaching. I was new at the school as a teacher and felt confused as if I had done something wrong. I kept quiet after that.

Our son started doing fabulously in his academics. He earned major awards for his learning in grades seven and eight. He set as a goal getting onto the Headmaster’s Honor Roll and achieved it.

As a fifteen year old, our son had to have the Learning Disabilities assessment done again so it would carry his accommodations---computer use and extra time---into his university courses. This time he did not say anything to the Educational Psychologist about his experiences playing basketball for coaches who screamed incoherently, repeatedly expressed disgust at players’ performances, muttered obscenities, swore, shunned and ostracized certain players. We only learned about this conduct from detailed student testimonies a year later. However, our son’s learning assessment should have been a red flag because he had gone into serious decline as a student: “his spelling skills and skills of reading comprehension are significantly weaker now than in 2007 (when compared to age expectations). Moreover, [he] now experiences mild attentional challenges.”

We could not understand how our bright child, previously focused and confident was in decline. The key lesson in this is an eleven year old might speak up about teacher abuse, but a fifteen year old who hopes to play basketball at college knows that if he reports the coach is abusive, he might lose his chance for playing time, scholarship opportunities, letters of reference, phone calls made to university coaches. Teachers and coaches are in a significant power imbalance with students.

The teenager knows that far too often victims are held responsible for the actions of bullies. Teens know well enough that the system has a bad habit of flipping it around so that students who report are seen as a problem because their speaking up will affect the reputation of the teacher or coach and therefore the school, so they learn it’s best to put their heads down and suffer. It’s best to look the other way when they witness teachers or coaches bullying certain targeted students.

However, it wasn’t just our son, there were many parents and many students reporting. Students across five years were describing the same bullying conduct done by their teachers under the auspices of coaching. We believed the system, namely the Headmaster, the Chaplain, the Director of the Senior School and certainly the Commissioner for Teacher Regulation would step in and stop what multiple students were describing as a clearly abusive situation in the basketball programs.

We were wrong.

Student reports of teachers calling players “f----- retards, f---- pussies, f----- pathetic, f---- embarrassments” and so on were minimized and dismissed as part of a sports culture with the help of lawyers and the Commissioner for Teacher Regulation.

Scientists at McMaster University refer to this kind of attack on a child as relational bullying: “Many parents, educators, and health professionals are familiar with physical and verbal forms of bullying. However, it also is bullying when a child uses ostracism, rumour spreading, or gossip to sabotage another child's peer relationships and isolate him or her from the peer group. This type of bullying, called relational bullying, can be just as harmful to a child as being physically harassed or attacked.” [1] Like the vast majority of studies, this one is focused on peer bullying. One can only imagine that the harmful impact caused by bullying is exponentially intensified when the bullying comes from an adult in a powerful position such as coach, teacher, or Headmaster.

Our son nearly collapsed as a student and as a person. With the claims of anonymous students, published widely by the Headmaster, that he had told “nasty lies” and had “manufactured evidence,” he started having panic attacks if he needed to simply write a math test. Our son would avoid going to classes if he had to present something. He was diagnosed with PTSD by an experienced sports psychology expert. He was exempted from exams in grade 11 and 12. His reaction to bullying is typical and well-documented by researchers. “Research shows that bullying can negatively impact a child’s access to education and lead to:

• School avoidance and higher rates of absenteeism
• Decrease in grades
• Inability to concentrate
• Loss of interest in academic achievement
• Increase in dropout rates” [2]

When our son went off to university, we had no hope that he would survive. We were sure within a month or two he’d have to come back home.

We were wrong.

In an environment where he wasn’t being bullied by teachers, administrators and then peers---who were modeling their conduct on the adults---our son flourished. In first year, he slowly but surely learned again to trust his own abilities, to concentrate, to handle anxiety. In second year, he fought his way onto the Dean’s List. Only one thousand students out of twenty thousand have a high enough GPA to get on the list at his university. He is exceptionally bright and strong-minded to not let a learning disability or previous educational bullying hold him back.

Learning Disabilities may actually be Learning Exceptionalities. We might be losing some of our top students and top athletes by simply expecting them to submit to whatever teaching style we deem best. A cookie cutter method for teaching is not only outdated, but it has the power to significantly harm certain learners who don’t fit with the herd. These exceptional learners have many gifts that get squandered by an education system when it is rigid and formulaic [4].

Teachers and Coaches who bully can cause serious harm to student learning on the court and in the classroom and therefore should never be tolerated. Forty years of psychological, psychiatric, and neuroscientific research says bullying harms all students, not just the exceptional ones.

Notes 1. 2. Wenonah Campbell and Cheryl Missiuna, “Bullying Risk in Children with Disabilities: A Review of the Literature,” CanChild: Centre for Childhood Disability Research, 2011: 3. Pacer’s National Bullying Prevention Centre, “Bullying and Harassment of Students with Disabilities,” 4. Sean Price, “Ending Child Abuse at School,” 2009: “According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, over the last 20 years there have been hundreds of allegations of school personnel using restraint and seclusion in abusive ways on children. It's happening disproportionately to students with disabilities, often at the hands of untrained staff. Many of these students bear haunting physical and emotional scars.”

Dr. Jennifer Fraser's picture
Bullying Expert

With a PhD in Comparative Literature, Fraser is a passionate educator, researcher and writer. Her most recent book, Teaching Bullies, is an exploration of what happens when the teacher or coach is the bully. Drawing on psychology, psychiatry, sports journalism and neuroscience, she argues that bullying done by adults—namely emotional abuse—does such significant harm it should join sexual and physical abuse in criminal code.  Her new book, Teaching Bullies: Zero Tolerance on the Court or in the Classroom, is available now!