Michael J. Rovello
“The boys throw stones at the frogs in jest, but the frogs die in earnest.”
Each time I learn of another instance of bullying in our public schools, I descend to a new level of loathing for those school officials and classroom teachers who allow it to happen. And school superintendents, school boards, the courts, and state and county officials also must all share the blame for this outrageous conduct.
I was a junior high and middle school principal for more than twenty-five years in a school that had between 1000 and 1300 pupils who came from all walks of life. At one point we had overflow senior high students because of overcrowding. There was virtually no bullying in our school, and no bully ever had to be dealt with twice.
Over the years I polled parents informally as to what they wanted their school to do for their children. Two answers stood out: they wanted their children to be safe and they wanted their children to be happy. Academics came in third.
How did we prevent bullying as much as possible and deal with it when it occurred? The first order of business, always, was to make sure that lines were drawn; that teachers and students understood the rules; that rules were real; that rules were enforceable and would be enforced. Near the beginning of each school year, a student handbook, which outlined all routine procedures and rules, was mailed to every student new to our school. On the first day of school every homeroom teacher was required to read all school rules to every student. Rule 39 in the student handbook stated:
“Any student who extorts another’s possessions, who threatens another student, who bullies other students, who harasses or ridicules other students, will be suspended.”
In very serious cases, a parent was required to accompany the student back to school. And at the beginning of each school year I, personally, announced to all students that if they were ever bullied or threatened, they could come directly to my office without asking permission of anyone.
In the teachers’ handbook under “General Teacher Routine and Responsibilities”, Item 29 read as follows:
“Every teacher is to be at his door during class changes. At the end of unassigned periods, teachers are to be at their doors before students change classes. You are not to stop and have a cigarette when you are to be supervising hall traffic. Your mere presence does not necessarily mean order. You must do something.”
A few teachers stood at their doors like statues: seeing, hearing and doing nothing. Administrators who made note of teachers not aggressively supervising hall traffic gave those teachers a reminder – sometimes in writing.
Rule #1 under “General Suggestions for Staff” read as follows:
“Under no circumstances is a teacher to overlook undisciplined behavior on the part of students, whether in the hall, in a lavatory, outside, or walking past a room where the teacher is not in attendance. Every student in this school is to understand that every pair of adult eyes supervises all students constantly. To ignore the violation of minor rules is to encourage the violation of major rules.”
The guidance counselors, the school nurse – even the custodians – were directed to report undisciplined behavior or bullying to me or the other administrators.
All of the above established the framework needed to maintain order and protect students, but having a bunch of rules was not enough. I identified those areas and times when undisciplined conduct or bullying might take place and made certain that there was always ample adult supervision, particularly during lunch periods, before school at the student entrances, and at dismissal to buses. Our school had two gyms and four physical education teachers, two men and two women. When classes changed, one male teacher was required to monitor the locker room; the other was required to be on the gym floor. The women gym teachers did the same.
Student lavatories were places where bullying could take place. Since it was not possible to see into student lavatories when the door was open, I directed the custodians to prop open the student lavatory doors. Any teacher, administrator, or custodian walking by could then tell immediately if mischief was taking place.
I insisted that every teacher teach with the classroom door open unless some appropriate, noisy educational activity was taking place. (A closed door always attracted my attention.) The other administrators and I could monitor the entire school by standing at one of four hall intersections on the main corridor, but we still checked out the entire building routinely. Our constant presence was felt.
Our school had as many as thirty student buses. At the beginning of each school year I asked contractors to send our bus drivers to a very brief meeting. The drivers were given a clear understanding of what was expected of them and how we would support them. If poor behavior took place on the way to school, the driver sent one student to the office to get an administrator before students were discharged. If poor behavior took place on the way home, the driver was instructed to bring the bus back to school. Bullying or extremely poor behavior earned a student a hearing and suspension right on the bus. If a student continued to bully or harass students, his bus pass was taken away and he was told to find his own way to school. We investigated every complaint from parents or angry citizen neighbors at bus stops. We also investigated every complaint that students made about drivers and occasionally insisted that drivers be changed.
Some teachers were not pleased by my policy of having bullied or harassed students come directly to my office for relief. That policy uncovered a number of instances of grossly inappropriate sexual conduct by teachers that resulted in resignations. One of those teachers moved twenty miles down the road and got another teaching job. No one ever asked me for a recommendation. To my knowledge, not one of these teachers had their credentials revoked. What was also disconcerting to me was that some teachers supported these molesters. Another practice by administrators that I found extremely unprofessional was giving incompetent teachers good recommendations to get rid of them, thereby saddling an unsuspecting district with the problem the previous administrator didn’t have the guts to face.
The State of New Jersey and the courts should be ashamed of the casual manner in which they have treated these child molesters simply because the offense didn’t rise to the level of rape. At the very least they should be publicly disgraced. It seems as if shame no longer exists.
We made every effort to require visitors to come into the school at the main entrance close to the office. All other doors were locked from the outside, but could be opened from the inside. On one occasion, a young adult hood who had a beef with one of our students, sneaked into the building, waited at the intersection for the student to pass by, and punched the student in the face so hard that the student had to be taken to the hospital. I immediately went to the police department and filed a complaint.
When the case came up, I appeared in court to testify. As I recall, the judge put this adult on probation and fined him some miniscule amount of money. When I expressed my outrage to the boy’s father, he put up his hand to stop me and said, “That’s OK. Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it.” The last I heard, that young man had a broken leg and had left town. Justice sometimes moves in mysterious ways.
Because Rule 39 in the student handbook encouraged students to report instances of bullying directly to me, this kept bullying to a minimum. Occasionally, a bullied student took matters into his own hands.
On one occasion, two students who had been fist fighting were sent to my office. Fred had obviously gotten the worst of the fight. Fred had big red welts on his face and a bloody nose. Tom’s face was clean, but he was obviously agitated. I asked Tom to explain what had happened and he said, “I’ve had enough. When I open my locker Fred slams it shut. He’s even slammed the door on my hand. He knocks my books out of my hands. This goes on every day.” I asked Fred if this was true and he nodded his head, “Yes.” Then I asked Fred if Tom had bothered him in any way and Fred said, “No.” At this point I excused Tom to go back to class and told Fred to return to the office at the end of the day to pick up his three-day letter of suspension. When those who harassed or bullied were confronted by an administrator, very often the response was, “I was only kidding.”
A high school principal colleague of mine made it a practice to suspend both individuals in a fist fight, no matter who was to blame – a practice I found despicable. Rule 29 in our student handbook stated, in part, “Every student has a right to defend himself.” I was not in the business of training young people to become victims.
On another occasion a very agitated young lady came to my office and asked to speak directly to me about a very important problem. She was angry and she was there to speak up on behalf of Susan who was totally blind, who used a Braille typewriter, and who was being harassed by Mary. “Mary,” she said, “knocks Susan’s books off her desk. Mary trips Susan in the hall. She shoves Susan. She hides Susan’s things.”
I sent this student back to class, waited fifteen minutes to cool down and went to that room and interrupted the class. I asked the teacher to identify Mary and I stood in front of Mary’s desk. After determining that the allegations were true, I proceeded to verbally blister Mary in front of her entire class while her classmates and teacher listened. My parting shot to Mary was, “You’ve just learned the Golden Rule in reverse. If your mother wants to see me, tell her to call the office.” I can just hear the clucking of tongues at my public handling of this problem. Sometimes public humiliation works wonders. Nobody ever bullied Susan again.
Another problem I had to deal with was the teacher bully. One of our teachers maintained discipline by taking students into the hall, jacking them up and slamming them into lockers. In the discussion that took place in my office, I informed the teacher that if this conduct persisted I would not process a complaint through the Superintendent’s Office or the school board, where a cozy relationship existed between them and the teacher’s union. Rather, I told him, I would go directly to the Police Department and have him charged with assault. The problem ended.
I have heard recently of students having sex in classrooms with the teacher present. How oblivious can a teacher be? Where is the principal? Have no students complained? Have no parents complained? Frankly, that conduct describes a zoo, not a school. This conduct could never have occurred in our school.
Another kind of bullying takes place in schools: students bullying teachers. A colleague of mine whose mother was a math teacher in a nearby prestigious community related the following incident to me:
A student in his mother’s class was reprimanded for obnoxious behavior and defiantly refusing to follow the teacher’s directions. He responded to her by subjecting her to a string of epithets and four-letter words. She called the main office, briefly described his conduct, said a note would follow, and sent the student to the main office. Within fifteen minutes the student was back in the class with a smirk for his classmates to let them know there was no penalty.
In our school if a student got out of hand, I or an administrator would be in that classroom within two minutes flat and that student would be suspended on the spot.
There were a number of practices that were a part of my administrative style that kept bullying and undisciplined conduct to an absolute minimum:
1) I was in school every day and I stayed out of my office as much as possible. I avoided out-of-school meetings run by bureaucrats attempting to justify their existence.
2) When I received those endless requests for reports and statistics from the District, the County, the State, and the Federal Governments, I asked some hapless secretary to complete them and I reviewed them. Nothing positive ever came of these reports. I chose instead to monitor what was going on in the building. If New Jersey were to quietly close all County Superintendent offices tomorrow, no one would be the wiser. The New Jersey Department of Education is no prize outfit, either.
3) We had one set of rules in our school and they applied to everyone equally. Over the years I suspended from school the Mayor’s son, the children of three PTA presidents, as well a staff member’s daughter who was caught with drugs.
4) In more than thirty years in public education, I missed about five days from work for any reason whatsoever.
5) And a small, but important, point. I wore crepe-soled, British desert boots that made my routine walking comfortable – and quiet.
When I became the principal of our school I had the following sign installed over the inside entrance: “There’s a special place in hell reserved for those who abuse children or any of God’s helpless creatures.” My successor had the sign taken down and thrown away.
Michael J. Rovello served as a public school principal for 25+ years. He considered the protection of the youth in his school as important as their education. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.