The Fort Worth school district, like many districts around the country, spends considerable energy on the problem of reducing bullying behavior among its students.
It’s tough to teach those lessons successfully, however, when you’re not modeling the correct behavior yourself. Unfortunately, it has become clear in recent months that bullying by Fort Worth school administrators of those below them in the hierarchy is rampant — not only at Arlington Heights High School, the subject of Fort Worth Weekly’s “Powder Keg” cover story of Aug. 11, but on many campuses around the city and in the administration’s headquarters building as well. The 65 pages of comments at the bottom of the web version of Betty Brink’s story easily showed that.
Bullying is exactly what has happened to the more than two dozen whistleblowers who, in good faith and relying on assurances that there would be no retaliation, brought forth the allegations that revealed a widespread and persistent pattern of misconduct at Arlington Heights, including tampering with attendance records, allowing students to “clean (offices) for credit,” and subverting the TAKS testing process by purposely skewing which students would take the test. When a culture of bullying is allowed in one school, it reflects the culture of the entire organization. Teachers are powerless to effect change in their workplace when they feel they have no safe harbor to go to report such wrongdoing.
In the case of Arlington Heights — and (I suspect) many other Fort Worth public schools — the bullying has reached the point of constituting a hostile workplace. The legal definition of a hostile work environment is a place where employees experience harassment and are afraid to go to work because of the offensive, intimidating, or oppressive atmosphere.
I believe that describes the situation in which teachers and others have found themselves over the last few months. During that time, managers have repeatedly done things designed to force resignations by those who had filed grievances against the district and its administrators. This has happened despite Superintendent Melody Johnson’s written assurances, given in a letter in May, that she would personally address any instances of retaliation.
That is not accidental. Based on my professional experience as a nurse, psychotherapist, and facilitator/mediator, I believe that bullies thrive in cultures where those in charge do not want to confront the real problems and do not provide the tools for appropriately resolving conflicts. Workplace bullies seldom change their behavior voluntarily. It requires a cultural change at the top level of management.
So what should you do if you feel you are being bullied in the workplace? The first lesson is to realize that you are not helpless. There are things you can do:
1. Don’t take it personally. Such behavior is about the bully, not about you. You can’t change the bully’s behavior, but you can find someone to trust with whom you can vent your frustrations.
2. Get help. Start with the people you feel most comfortable in approaching — talk to a friend, a minister, a family member. You will feel stronger. Don’t try to stop the bullying on your own.
3. Reporting problems to your direct supervisor may not produce results. Find out what your employer’s policy is on workplace bullying and who else within the organization you can turn to. The Fort Worth school district has a human resources department with a diversity division. Whatever the equivalent is in your workplace, go there and report the bullying.
4. Remember that you have choices. You do not have to tolerate a hostile work environment. A change of departments or supervisors may be a solution so that you do not have to leave the organization.
5. Urge your employer to train workers to support one another and to set limits on their co-workers.
6. If necessary, consult an attorney with experience in labor and employment issues for advice on what constitutes a whistleblower claim.
All parents want their children to go to safe schools where they will receive fair treatment and a good education. For that to happen, teachers as well as students must be treated with respect. And just as we, as parents, teach our children to play well with others, we must demand that our school district officials do the same.
Linda LaBeau is a registered nurse, psychotherapist, and mediator. A former candidate for the Fort Worth school board, she has helped to represent a key whistleblower in the Arlington Heights High School situation.