Pushing Back on the Bullies

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As a teacher and an administrator there were times when I faced the ire of a parent. Most of the time I understood that the anger being directed at me or the school was the product of overwrought emotions from individuals who cared deeply about their children. Only rarely did the discussions become so heated that they crossed a line in which threats were hurled and I felt concern for my safety. On those occasions I did my best to calm the waters or even excused myself for a moment to get help. 

I recall a particular Open House when I was a Peer Facilitator, a mentor and advocate for the teachers. I heard yelling coming from a classroom and saw that a parent was hurling epithets and threats at one of the educators. I suggested that the irate individual follow me to my office where we might talk about the situation privately since there were other parents waiting to meet and greet their children’s teachers. 

As we walked down the hallway the parent continued to rant while I quietly and calmly tried to bring down her level of anger. Suddenly she stopped and turned her wrath directly on to me. She had no idea who I was or why I was defending the teacher but she assured me that she was going to come after me. She said that she would wait in the parking lot until I got into my car later that night and then she would follow me home. At that point she boasted that she would beat me until I was bloody when she got the chance. 

I was stunned by the turn of events because I had said nothing to her other than suggesting that her concerns would best be discussed in a private setting. Suddenly I felt that I was in peril and my own defense mechanisms kicked into gear. I told her that she might want to reconsider following me because it would be a long drive (which it was) and that I lived in a neighborhood filled with former students and long time friends who would instantly defend me if she dared to become violent. She was evidently shocked by my response and suddenly became quiet and began to cry. After that we had a very productive discussion about her child. I felt lucky that the confrontation had ended with a whimper, but I was shaken up by the thought of what might have happened if she had not calmed down.

Most parents who become enraged do so out of extreme emotions of concern. Usually there is more happening in their lives than particular issues at the school. Acknowledging their pain and their worries generally more often than not results in mutual satisfaction between the parent and the school. When things get out of hand it can be frightening for everyone. When erratic behavior is multiplied exponentially by an overwrought group, mob rule takes over and it becomes almost impossible to handle any problems in a rational and constructive way. 

Parents indeed have every right to attend school board meetings and to voice their opinions, but of late many of them have turned into unreasonable and frightening bullies. The reason we have rules about who can speak, how long they can speak and what kind of language they may use, is because nothing is ever accomplished when anger takes hold over reason. It is important for all parties to understand that no organization ever wants to make decisions based on the anecdotal comments of a small group. It takes time to sort out what the majority is actually thinking. The squeaky wheel should not automatically get the grease. Knee jerk reactions do little good. Everyone needs to have patience and a willingness to bring all the disparate ideas to the table.

While loud and often obnoxious protests have to be acknowledged, it is also likely that many more parents are sitting quietly at home with far different opinions about how things should be done in their children’s schools. It takes time and effort to determine what people really want and of course the individuals who work in the schools should have opportunity to voice their needs as well. What cannot happen is to allow violence and threats to overtake the peaceful administration of our schools. Nobody associated with schools should feel afraid to simply do their jobs, but more and more often that is becoming the reality.

As a retired educator I have watched in dismay as parents across the country are flexing their muscles and making a mockery of school board meetings. I understand that it is only the few who are engaging in hyperbolic behaviors but threats are threats no matter how few they are and they are always frightening. It should not require campus police or other forms of security for those charged with educating our youth to feel safe, but sometimes situations get so out of hand that it is the only way. I’ve been rescued a couple of times by police officers who saw that a parent’s irrational anger was growing dangerous. It is a horrible feeling to be in that position when one’s only intent is to have an honest discussion about issues. 

I am appalled by the growing anger in our society. Those of us who are of a quiet nature must work together to determine how we might get a grip on the almost psychotic overreactions of far too many otherwise normal individuals to every little problem that they encounter. We can’t have people storming the Capitol every time their chosen candidate loses, nor should we have parents invading school board meetings with their gripes and threats of violence. No system will long stand without protocols and at least a modicum of decency and respect. 

I have worked in schools filled with students who belonged to gangs. They generally behaved during the day, but we knew that after hours they donned their colors and divided into tribes intent only on defeating one another. Theirs was a fruitless effort for dominion, for power, that always ended in violence and a waste of human resources. Right now we have far too many, most especially among our supposed representatives in government, who are behaving like gang members intent on bullying us into granting them power over us. It’s long past time for us to let such people know that we will no longer silently accept their ways. Sometimes we have to deal with conflict even when it is against our natures and we have to join together to get it done. 

When I was a youngster in school a couple of bullies were sowing discontent in my class. One day things came to a head with the tormentors openly taunting a very shy girl so badly that she dissolved into tears. Our teacher instantly pushed back on the abusers with a volley of words that left them defeated. She seized their power over us and quashed it in one fell swoop. They never again hurt any of us with words or actions or threats. I’m hoping we have heroes like her among us who will courageously speak out against those who would make a mockery of our institutions with their taunts and anger. Let’s put them on notice that we will not allow bullies to make our important decisions.