First Person

Ask an Expert: When a teacher doesn't notice classroom bullying

Q. What advice can you give when the children bullying your child do it quietly. My son is 11 years old. Tattling is frowned upon. He gets harassed one-on-one when the teacher is not looking. Then when I find out about it, I get the common response, ‘I will look into it.’ I let the teacher know that the other boys dislike my son. The teacher always goes along with what the five boys who are doing the bullying say. The teacher believes that if those boys are saying the same thing, then my son is lying. Getting tired of it. So what to do?

A. Your situation, regretfully, is commonly how bullying works and why it is maddening for parents of a bullied child. First, let me shed some light on the social dynamic your son is caught up in and then give you some actions you can take to help him.

Tattling vs. telling

“Tattling is frowned upon.”  By whom? And should that stop you from helping your son?  In lawless cultures, such as street gangs, there is a saying, “snitches get stitches.”  The purpose is to keep power and punishment in the hands of those at the top the hierarchy. Gang leaders deal harshly with snitching or tattling to outside authorities, which does little to keep victims from being bullied and oppressed. As I explained to one of my students just last week, the bullies are trying to prevent the bullied –  my student and your son –  from getting help from someone who could stop them from bullying their victim.

bummed boy with head against brick wall / bullyIn your son’s case, it sounds like working this out within his peer group is not working. Therefore, telling (not tattling) a trusted authority that he is being attacked by a pack of boys is one recourse he, and you, should take advantage of.  If anything, you will have a record of your son being bullied.  As evidence mounts you may have to take your son’s case to a higher authority than his present teacher given that s/he doesn’t seem to believe your son.

Alerting school authorities can also be as covert as the bullying.  Students do not have to know that administrators are keeping an eye on them for bullying, nor do students have to be told that your son has reported his situation.  Bullies do not have to know how they got caught to be stopped. This strategy can help take away the stigma the children have about invoking higher authority.

Bullying is opportunistic

Most bullying is done when teachers cannot see it. Bullying is opportunistic for the simple fact that if teachers see it they can stop the bullying. Bullies know that teachers cannot see every interaction, and at times are willing to overlook or minimize what they do see so they can get on with teaching.

You son may also be the victim of “The Halo Effect,” where a preferred trait spills over to other qualities whether or not it is true, e.g. a tall, attractive man would also make a good president.  If these other students are well-liked by the teacher and get good grades, the teacher may be fooled by this aura and be less likely to believe that they could be bullying your son.   Paradoxically, being popular makes it easier to bully other students.

So what to do?

  • Get as much specific information about the bullying as you can–listen compassionately to your son’s stories, as hard as this might be.  Document the full scope of the bullying from your son’s viewpoint, from beginning to the present, including: what happened, who was involved, how your son tried to handle the situation and what the results were.
  • Follow up with his teacher.  “I will look into it,” is a vague response that requires clarifying.  Ask the teacher what s/he has uncovered after “looking into it.”  Did the teacher give your son any advice on how to handle these situations, or is s/he relying on your son to handle things on your own?  Holding the teacher accountable for your son’s safety while under his/her care may change the teacher’s view of the situation and make him/her more vigilant to the bullying.
  •  Talk to your son about what responses to bullying you consider acceptable.  Let him know you are behind him; this alone will give him some confidence in standing up for himself.  Role-play responses to the type of bullying he usually faces (without more specific scenarios I cannot give you more specific responses).  While having the school and his parents on his side help and will bolster his confidence, it is ultimately up to your son to face the bullies using the tools you have given him.
  •  Consistency is key.  You mentioned that by the time your son reported the bullying to the teacher it wasn’t the first time he was a target.  Responding to the bullying with a firm, confident rebuke each and every time sends the clear message that your son will not be a passive victim and may even earn the respect of these other boys.

Feel free to contact me at if you have more specific details and/or need further advice or post your results on this site.

First Person

I’m an Oklahoma educator who had become complacent about funding cuts. Our students will be different.

Teacher Laurel Payne, student Aurora Thomas and teacher Elisha Gallegos work on an art project at the state capitol on April 9, 2018 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. (Photo by J Pat Carter/Getty Images)

I’ve spent the last 40 years watching the state I love divest in its future. The cuts to education budgets just kept coming. Oklahoma City Public Schools, where I spent the last 10 years working with teachers, had to cut over $30 million in the 2016-17 academic year alone.

Over time, students, teachers, and parents, at times including myself, became complacent. We all did what we could. For me, that meant working with the students and teachers in the most disenfranchised areas of my city.

In the past 18 months, that has also meant working at Generation Citizen, a nonprofit promoting civics education across Oklahoma. We help students deploy “action civics.” Over the course of a semester, students debate what they would change if they were in charge of their school, city, or state, and select one issue to address as a class, which may involve lobbying elected officials or building a coalition.

Their progress has been incredible. But when teachers across the state decided to walk out of their schools and head to the State Capitol to demand additional funding for education, action civics came to life in a huge way. And in addition to galvanizing our teachers, I watched this moment in Oklahoma transform young people.

My takeaway? Over the long term, this walkout will hopefully lead to more funding for our schools. But it will definitely lead to a more engaged youth population in Oklahoma.

These past two weeks have sparked a fire that will not let up anytime soon. With actual schools closed, the Oklahoma State Capitol became a laboratory rich with civic experimentation. Students from Edmond Memorial High School wanted elected officials to personally witness what students and teachers continue to accomplish, and when the walkout started, the students started a “Classroom at the Capitol.” Over 40 students held AP English Literature on the Capitol lawn. Their message: the state might not invest in their classrooms, but classes would go on.

In the first few days of the walkout, the legislature refused to take action. Many wondered if their voices were being heard. That’s when Gabrielle Davis, a senior at Edmond Memorial, worked to rally students to the Capitol for a massive demonstration.

“I want the legislators to put faces to the decisions they’re making,” Gabrielle said.

By Wednesday, the “Classroom at the Capitol” had grown to over 2,000 students. The students were taking effective action: speaking knowledgeably on the funding crisis, with a passion and idealism that only young people can possess.

As students’ numbers grew, so did their confidence. By Wednesday afternoon, I watched as the state Capitol buzzed with students not only protesting, but getting into the nitty-gritty of political change by learning the names and faces of their elected officials.

By Thursday and Friday, students and teachers were no longer operating independently. The collaboration which makes classroom learning most effective was happening in the halls of the Capitol. When students identified the representative holding up a revenue bill, they walked through the line to find students from his home district to lead the charge.

Last Monday, with the walkout still ongoing, the students I saw were armed with talking points and legislative office numbers. After another student rally, they ran off to the offices of their elected officials.

Two students, Bella and Sophie, accompanied by Bella’s mom, made their way to the fourth floor. The girls stood outside the door, took a deep breath, and knocked. State Senator Stephanie Bice was in a meeting. They stepped out to decide their next move and decided to write personal notes to their state senators. With letters written, edited, and delivered, Bella and Sophie were beaming.

“That feels so good,” Sophie said.

A week of direct civic action had turned protesters into savvy advocates.

Until this walkout, most of the participating students had never met their elected officials. But that’s quickly changing. Students have worked collaboratively to demystify the legislative process, understand the policy goals articulated by organizing groups, and advocate for revenue measures that would support a more equitable education system.

Jayke, a student from Choctaw, reflected on this reality. “These last few days at the Capitol I have learned more about life and how to stand up for what I believe.”

That’s no small thing. Over those 14 days, I listened to students use their voices to express their experiences. Many also spoke on behalf of students who were not there. They spoke for the 60 percent of Oklahoma public school students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. They rallied for the students at each of their schools who do not have enough food to eat.

Through this conflict, our students are learning the importance, and the mechanics, of political participation. Our young people are becoming powerful in a way that will outlast this funding crisis. It’s everything a civics educator could hope for.

Amy Curran is the Oklahoma site director for Generation Citizen, an education nonprofit.

First Person

Let’s solve the right problems for Detroit’s students with disabilities — not recycle old ones

PHOTO: Jessica Glazer

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

As Superintendent Nikolai Vitti approaches his first anniversary of leading the struggling Detroit Public Schools Community District, I commend him for his energy and vision. In particular, I applaud his focus on developing a robust curriculum and hiring great teachers, the foundations of any great school district.

However, his recently announced plans to create new specialized programs for students with disabilities are disconcerting to me, given decades of research demonstrating the benefits of inclusion.

Specifically, Vitti has discussed the possibility of creating specialized programs for students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments. The motivation is twofold: to meet students’ needs and to offer distinct programs that will attract parents who have fled Detroit in search of higher quality schools.

I’ve spent 25 years both studying and actively trying to improve schools for students with disabilities, and I can understand why Vitti’s proposal may have appeal. (I’m now the head of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.) But while the specialized programs might fill a critical need immediately, I have seen the downside of creating such segregated programming.

Once the programs are created, parents will seek them out for appearing to be the better than weak programs in inclusive settings. This will reinforce the belief that segregation is the only way to serve students with learning differences well.

This is a problematic mindset that we must continually try to shift. One need only to examine decades of special education case law, or the outcomes of districts designed solely for students with disabilities — such as District 75 in New York City or the Georgia Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support — to see that such segregated settings can become one-way paths to limited access to a robust curriculum, peers without disabilities, or high standards, even when those districts are created with the best of intentions.

While a small proportion of students with the most significant support needs — typically 2-3 percent of students identified for special education — can benefit from more segregated and restrictive settings, the vast majority of students with disabilities can thrive in inclusive settings.

Vitti is clearly committed to ensuring that students with disabilities have access to essential supports and services, especially students with dyslexia. He has spoken passionately about his own experiences growing up with undiagnosed dyslexia as well as watching two of his four children struggle with dyslexia. And Vitti and his wife started a school for students with dyslexia in Jacksonville, Florida.

However, I would urge him to reconsider his approach in favor of exploring strategies to integrate robust supports and services into existing schools. By integrating, rather than separating, Vitti can ensure that all students have access to the general education curriculum and to teachers with demonstrated subject knowledge.

Furthermore, integrated programs ensure that students with disabilities have access to their typically developing peers and, conversely, that these peers have access to special education teachers’ expertise.

I’ve had the pleasure of seeing such inclusive programs in action around the country. For example, at San Diego’s Thrive Public Schools, there is no discernible distinction between students receiving special education services and students who are not. When I visited earlier this year, I saw how special education teachers work alongside general education teachers and share responsibilities for all students, not just those with disabilities.

At Mott Haven Academy in New York, teachers and school leaders preemptively deter behavioral issues and incorporate opportunities for intentional reflection. Students learn in a restorative environment that is safe, stable, structured, and understanding — particularly benefiting students with disabilities.

I’ve also seen programs designed to serve students with learning disabilities benefit many students. Why would we restrict these instructional practices to schools specifically designed only for students with dyslexia, for example?

I’m convinced that separating students based on their learning needs stands to do harm to both groups and reinforce pernicious stereotypes that students with disabilities need to be separated from their peers — a practice that does not prepare any students well to exist in a society that ideally embraces, rather than shuns, differences.

If Vitti cannot create the least restrictive settings for these students with autism, dyslexia, and hearing impairments in the desired timeline, I encourage him to consider an explicitly short-term solution — say, one to three years — with a specific phase-out deadline. This will enable students to receive critical supports and services while Vitti strives to ensure that students with disabilities are able to access high-quality programs in more inclusive settings.

In the long term, Vitti should strive to weave educating the full range of students with learning differences into the DNA of Detroit’s schools.

It is refreshing to hear an urban superintendent explicitly prioritizing the educational needs of students with disabilities. Vitti’s concerns should energize efforts to address the limited capacity, resources, and training for the benefit of all students. That would be truly innovative, and Detroit has the potential to emerge as a leader — an effort for which Vitti could be very proud.

Lauren Morando Rhim is the executive director and co-founder of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools.