“One of the hardest things to fix is something somebody else has broken.” — Trauma Victim
The Journal of California Alliance for the Mentally Ill stated, “ In the United States alone, from 1996 to 1998 more than 5 million children were exposed to some form of a severe traumatic event such as physical abuse, domestic and community violence, motor vehicle accidents, chronic painful medical procedures and natural disasters. These experiences can have devastating impacts.”
To the world at large, I was well-adjusted —I thought so too until Incident 16.
April 16, 2002, began like any other day, getting the kids off to school and my husband and me off to work. Life was fine. The sun was shining, tulips were in bloom, smiles were on our faces, and my students were on task. All that changed at approximately 11:40 a.m., when an 18-year-old stranger entered the middle school where I worked and trapped me in my classroom. This event would lead to years of abusive bullying behavior from my employer and his mob of puppets, a state and federal lawsuit and a downward spiral into the world of the abyss. It would cost me my career, and inflict financial, physical and emotional damage. The attorneys would eventually name the cases Incident 16.These events ultimately led me to write, Bravery, Bullies, & Blowhards Lessons Learned In A Montana Classroom.
The constant barrage of abusive bullying by school administrators and colleagues triggered long-suppressed traumatic memories. This ultimately led to a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). At the time of my diagnosis, I really didn’t understand PTSD. I was just grateful to learn that I was not a “nut” or the character Jack Nichols played in “The Shining” like my employer and his defense team tried to paint me. Like most people, I associated PTSD with combat. What I learned, however, was that my traumatic childhood and the abusive bullying placed me in the eight percent category of PTSD. Most people will experience at least one traumatic situation in their lives, putting them in the 50 to 90 percent range. Without a doubt, I know I suffered from what Dr. Judith Herman of Harvard refers to as Complex PTSD also known as Disorders of Extreme Stress. A diagnosis that has yet to be listed on the DSM-IV.
Incident 16 triggered long-suppressed memories almost instantaneously. They started with flashes of an assault when I was in my teens. This was triggered when the stranger followed me. Then progressed to flashes of a rape when I was a small child trapped in a locked bedroom with my rapist. When the vice principal didn’t immediately remove the stranger and gave him permission to stay “six more minutes” it worsened the situation, and increased my fears. Forced to protect myself, I was put into a “fight or flight response” also referred to as “acute stress response.” Simply put, a physiological reaction occurred which put me in a state of terror. The messages received were “deal with the threat” or “run away to safety.” I chose “deal with it.” Filing a written report upped the scale and the bully, and his mob came at me. My concern for school and personal safety was heightened. This led to offensive actions from the bullies, including hardcore pornography on the classroom computer, false accusations, fabricated documentation, suspensions, and rumors. The mob of bullies went so far as to delete and change student grades, projects, portfolios.
The prolonged abuse by my employer led to more nightmares, flashbacks, school interrogations, court depositions, psychological and psychiatric sessions. My own experiences demonstrate that childhood trauma and abusive bullying in the workplace affects employers, employees, schools, parents, future parents and students and society. To understand the impact, we must understand that the brain records all experiences. Traumatic experiences alter the brain itself. Trauma affects not only student learning and behavior it affects workplace productivity, society, socioeconomics, and our overall health.
What people need to understand is that the traumatized and the abusively bullied have little or no control over their situation in either a school or workplace environment. Their situations are complicated. Their environments are complex. One of the favorite tactics of a bully is to isolate the victim so that they cannot tell their story. Other tactics include intimidation, public humiliation, and even legal coercion. For those who experience chronic abuse, the hurdles are difficult. Positive emotions are replaced by guilt, shame, hopelessness, unworthiness, anger, and suicidal thoughts. They begin to see themselves differently, losing confidence and becoming paranoid. They start to believe the lies and see themselves as abnormal or odd. Rejection creates loneliness, deep depression and sometimes results in suicide.
Recent statics suggest that 10 million children will witness domestic violence. In a study done July of 2012, by the National Center for Mental Health Promotions and Youth Violence Prevention, Childhood Trauma and Its Effects on Healthy Development, 60 percent of adults reported that they experienced abuse or other family circumstances during childhood and 26 percent reported witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event. The study also revealed, “Young children exposed to five or more significant adverse experiences in the first three years of childhood face a 76 percent likelihood of one or more delays in their language, emotional or brain development.” Simply put, the undeveloped brain is fragile. I reiterate fear and trauma change the brain.
Tim Field one of UK’s leading specialists on workplace bullying and author of the book, Bully In Sight, stated, “In the last decade of the twentieth century, workplace bullying is, in my view, the second greatest social evil after child abuse, with which there are many parallels.”
The Workplace Bullying Institute asserted in 2014, “The number of workers who are affected by bullying–summing over those with direct bullying and witnessing experiences –is 65.6 million, the combined population of 15 states.”
Becky Parker of WDAZ in Grand Forks, Oct. 22, 2015, reported, “Forty-five percent say they’ve been bullied at some point during their career, and another 25% say they’ve witnessed workplace bullying.”
While the situations have begun to change, many who report abusive-bullying or trauma (e.g. rape, domestic violence, child abuse) to the authorities find their claims often met with skepticism. This is interpreted by the victim as a lack of concern on the part of the authorities. In our politically-correct world, no one wants to believe that anyone is at fault. Parents who report the playground bully are often told that there are “two sides to every story.” When questioned, the abused often retreat, feeling that the solution is to ignore the problem.
According to the Bureau of Justice School Bullying Statistics Cyber Bullying – School Crime and Safety: Thirty percent of U.S. students in grades six through ten are involved in moderate or frequent bullying Some are bullies, some are victims, some are both. Statistically, school bullying and cyberbullying are increasingly viewed as an important contributor to youth violence, including homicide and suicide. However, other factors will also come into play including mental illness. There is never one single reason for any of these events. But case studies of the shooting at Columbine High School and other U.S. schools suggest that bullying was a factor in many of the incidents. One of the most staggering statics shows 28 percent of youths carrying guns have witnessed violence at home. Other School Bullying Statistics reveal:
- 1 out of 4 kids are bullied
- 1 out of every 4 kids will be abused by another youth.
- 77% of students are bullied mentally, verbally, & physically
- Cyber bullying statistics are rapidly approaching similar numbers
- Each day 160,000 students miss school for fear of being bullied.
- 43% fear harassment in the bathroom at school
- 100,000 students carry a gun to school
- A poll of teens ages 12-17 showed that they think violence increased at their schools.
- The same school bullying statistics and cyber bullying statistics poll also showed that 282,000 students are physically attacked in secondary schools each month
- More youth violence occurs on school grounds as opposed to on the way to school.
- Playground school bullying statistics – Every 7 minutes a child is bullied.
- In only 4% of these cases, will an adult intervene.
- The level of peer intervention is 11 %.
- In a staggering 85% of cases, there is no intervention.
According to Dr. Gregory Fritz, the good news is that 80 to 90% of these students can be treated or saved. This means that intervention is essential. But for many, the damage is already done. The victims are out of school and in the workplace.
If you’ve had a perfect childhood, or if you’ve never encountered abusive workplace/school bullies it’s hard to understand why someone else responds differently to some situations. Traumatized and abusively bullied people do not wear signs and are often hard to spot for a plethora of reasons. This is why I suggest all schools and workplaces go through formal training conducted by respected facilitators in the fields of trauma (e.g. sexual abuse, domestic violence, child abuse, child exploitation,). Additionally, when dealing with school or workplace bullying issues hire someone outside of the company or school to conduct the investigation or deal with the bully or abuser. This does not mean hiring someone with just initials behind their name. This means hiring someone that has actually walked in the shoes of the victim or target and is an outsider. I say this because bullies are often well-connected individuals within the system. Bringing in an outside expert helps assure the evaluation will be unbiased and completed fairly and thoroughly.
First and foremost, when dealing with schools remember, students come first, and adults bear the ultimate responsibility for making the school safe, civil and productive. When talking about the workplace, employees must feel safe and respected. All people in the schools and the workplace must follow employment policies, school rules, and employment law. If a school or business has a zero tolerance policy, it must apply to everyone. The star athlete is not exempt. Neither is the winning coach. Nor is the head of the company. I also suggest that schools and businesses provide employees with “soft skills” training to help them deal with personality traits, social graces, communication, language, personal habits, interpersonal skills, management, and leadership. There are a number of good programs. I have worked with Dale Carnegie, the Working It Out Program, etc.. There are many out there.
Make sure all students, parents and or caregivers understand school rules and procedures. Schedule training days to review and discuss policy handbooks, contract agreements, and student rules. I suggest you review these with parents and caregivers as well. A Clear understanding is essential. Equity is essential when dealing with policies, rules, and laws.
School and workplace environments must be safe and challenging for individuals and business to thrive. Good leadership accomplishes this through positive actions and attitudes. They lead their teams by example. They communicate goals and expectations clearly and concisely. They leave nothing to chance. If that means that cell phones should be turned off during work and school hours you let the students and employees know. If a dress code is in place, make sure students and employees clearly understand the dress code. If there are exceptions to a rule clearly communicate any and all exceptions. Write them down. Let students and employees know that negative actions have consequences. Clearly, communicate this to your students and employees. Again, I suggest this be put in writing.
When dealing with student and employee issues, it is essential to remember we all come from different backgrounds with different experiences. Our beliefs about ourselves influence the way we perceive the world and react to a situation. Help employees and students realize that some of their personal beliefs are helpful and others can be harmful. Their actions may be keeping them from attaining certain goals, whether that be behavioral, academic, financial or climbing the company ladder. Make the student, parent, caregiver or employee feel comfortable. Let them know you understand that we all make mistakes and you appreciate honesty. Help the students and employees write their goals. To ensure success start with mini goals.
When dealing with complaints, listen without judgment. Sometimes you will have to remove yourself from the problem. The systems for handling complains within a school system often make it difficult for the school administration to police themselves. Not only is this unfair, but it also puts the complainant in a defensive posture. Make sure the student and or employee know their rights and the procedures to follow. Do not assume. We all know what assumptions do. So do not leave anything to chance. Implement written documentation and provide copies. With some people, you will have to review everything orally. Remember we are not all equal when it comes to comprehension, intellect, and experiences.
After you have heard from the complainant, the next step is to clearly identify the problem. To be sure you understand, repeat what you think you have heard. If your analysis does not satisfy the employee, student, parent or caregiver, allow them to restate the concern or complaint. To be clear, follow up with something like, “so what I understand you to say is… Is that correct?” After you have a clear understanding of the problem, consider your choices and consequences. If a verbal correction is best then clearly state your plan of action. Write it down provide each party with copies. If a formal assessment is needed, follow the same procedure with more specifics. Whatever you do, do not try to avoid the issue—the cover-up will eventually get you. And this can be costly for all involved.
In my case, I later discovered that I was not the only one who had suffered trauma. My attacker was mentally ill and had been physically and emotionally abused. One administrator was an abusive husband before turning his skills to the workplace. He was also the product of a very dysfunctional family. Another administrator was dealing with problems of self-esteem. With 77 percent of the school population saying they are victims of bullies, we should not be surprised that four key players in my situation were bullied. And as a result, two became workplace bullies.
We all must comprehend that bullies are very manipulative and they will try to do everything within their power to ruin their target’s life. Childhood trauma influences the brain, and it must be dealt with. If it is not dealt with it will creep its ugly head into the workplace.
Intervention is the key. It’s the only way that we can create a society where children are thriving, and workers are positive and productive rather than a society infected by bullies and trauma.