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Independent Living News & Policy from the National Council on Independent Living

Surviving Education Trauma: Teacher Abuse of Disabled Students

Content Warning: discussion of abuse (mainly emotional abuse)

Head shot of Eryn Star
Photo of Eryn Star

By Eryn Star, NCIL Summer Policy Intern

In Spring 2018, the first known survey on the prevalence of k-12 teachers abusing students (all kinds of students, not just disabled) was released. It was an online survey from Northern Michigan University directed at a little over 1,000 teachers who were asked about the kinds of abusive behavior they have observed from the teachers around them. The results are important for everyone to see and validate what many education trauma survivors have been saying for years.

When asked how often they have seen teachers yelling at a student and embarrassing them publicly, most of the teachers responded 1-2 times with some responding 3-4 times or even 10 or more times. Never seeing those acts from teachers was rare. When the teachers were asked how many teachers in their school emotionally abuse students, only 14% said none. Furthermore, one in five teachers said that more than 10% of the teachers in their schools regularly target students. As much as we want to believe that educators would never do this to children and teens, teacher abuse of students happens much more often than society is ready to acknowledge and address. What resonated with me and confirmed what I’ve suspected for a long time is that the students targeted most by teachers were those with cognitive impairments with “other” a close second. When “other” respondents were asked to expand on who they witnessed being targeted, 1/3 said students of color, queer students, and English language learners. As an autistic queer student, it reminds me of my own experiences with education trauma.

For the entire second year of high school, I was emotionally abused by the choir director. She would publicly make negative comments about my voice and once told another student that I was “slower to get things.” If I was only a few minutes late to class from seeing the school psychologist, she would get angry. At the same time, she would praise my perfect pitch and have me do perfect pitch tests throughout the year in front of the class. However, that was just another way for her to control how people perceived me. Right before I did the test for the fourth time that year, she turned to the class and said, “Let’s play with Eryn.” I was a thing for abled to manipulate and use. In that moment, my personhood was stripped away from me. I developed generalized anxiety and had to go to therapy for it for two years. Even now, it wasn’t until this year that I was able to listen to a choir without feeling the need to flee. Before, I didn’t have nerves while singing at all, but now my knees shake whenever I sing for an audience. On the other hand, the choir director has taught at my high school for over thirty years and is still there. She knew I am disabled and did this. I know that she has targeted multiple disabled students, not just me. I share this because many disabled people have shared with me their stories of education trauma, and I want them to know they’re not alone.

I’ve recently started sharing my story with groups outside of disability spaces, and while I’ve gotten mostly support and solidarity, I did receive a bit of backlash from educators. I was accused of attacking all teachers and told that sharing my story makes their lives more difficult than they already are. Educators need to understand that addressing the behavior of abusive teachers is not an attack on all teachers; it is a call to action for systemic change in the education system so that all students are treated with dignity and respect in education and that teachers who consistently respect their students are valued by their schools. Some educators have attempted to justify my abuser’s behavior to me as not having enough resources to include disabled students, which results in frustrated feelings being released against them. Yes, teachers are often not trained or get inaccurate training on how to support disabled students and that is frustrating. That being said, lack of resources is not an excuse for persistent targeted abuse. If frustration is released against specific students regularly, it is more than frustration. How frustration is handled and directed is a choice.

What is especially relevant in the survey’s findings is that 2/3 of teachers didn’t know how to report abusive teachers. Furthermore, less than 13% said that their schools’ anti-bullying policies address teacher abuse of students. This illuminates how the education system currently is taking little to no steps to address this issue. I did tell my parents and the school psychologist about the abuse when it was happening; I didn’t know that the word abuse applied back then, but I did tell adults. I don’t think the psychologist told anyone, but I could be wrong. My parents wanted to report it to the principal but ultimately decided not to, because the choir director had tenure and they feared that doing anything would make the abuse worse. The adults didn’t know how to protect me, let alone teach me how to protect myself. It’s clear that they still don’t know how. Commenters on Pantsuit Nation who supported pressured me to put myself in dangerous situations such as “Say her name!” “Confront her before it’s too late!” I can’t; it isn’t safe. The education system failed me then, and we need to prevent that from happening to anyone else. McEvoy’s survey is still the only study done on this topic; we need to start researching prevalence from the perspective of students, not just teachers. Because of the lack of research, disabled education trauma survivors’ experiences aren’t acknowledged and discussed outside of the disabled community. It’s necessary to do surveys and interviews with disabled people and for more studies to be led by disabled researchers. Survivors of education trauma need to have spaces to connect with each other and share resources, online and offline. From there, K-12 schools need to start adding abuse of students by teachers to their anti-bullying policies with clear instructions for the process for students, parents, and teachers to report abusive teachers and state what the investigation process will be so that abusive teachers are held accountable for their actions.

Society would prefer to sweep my experiences under the rug—I am a disabled person assigned female at birth who was emotionally abused by a cis woman who has taught teens for over 30 years. Society would rather deny that disabled people can be abused and that women can be abusers than actively address the truth that anyone can be abused and anyone can be abusive. I’m not going to allow society to force us into silence. I am one disabled education trauma survivor and there are more of us ready to be heard.

Article referenced – Statistically Speaking: Teacher bullying is a real phenomenon, but it’s always been hard to quantify—until now.

Comments

  1. I currently need help with a school district in CA re: my daughter who has mild cognitive impairments/developmental disability and a learning disability in language. The school district didn’t provide her support/interview her fairly during a bullying investigation, which led to my daughter not being believed and the chronic issue dismissed. Separately I filed a complaint regarding inaccessibility (my daughter has CP & is a wheelchair user), and the attorney hired by the school board – who was not familiar with interviewing a minor with cognitive impairments – wasn’t pressuring me for the space to interview her by herself, and when I didn’t allow it, told me her responses were no longer credible.

    • Eryn Star says

      Hello, Nicole. The Independent Living Research Utilization website has a directory of independent living centers in each US state & territory. The core services for CILs are free. Here’s a link for the CILs in California: https://www.ilru.org/projects/cil-net/cil-center-and-association-directory-results/CA
      ~Eryn

    • One easy option is to file with the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights (OCR) for disability discrimination. It’s free and simple to do online without an attorney. You have the option to agree to a mediated settlement (called Facilitated Resolution Between the Parties [FRBP]) instead of an investigation.

  2. anonymous says

    I was abused by my textiles teacher. At our school you had to take a qualification in textiles, which was basically fashion design and then sewing your own garment. As a disabled person with mobility issues that mostly affect my hands and cause a weak grip, this was a nightmare. She would hold up my work as an example of “bad” work constantly, made me stay behind several days a week after school for a whole year in a workshop to continue my work she said I “didn’t try hard enough” no matter what I did. I was also once locked in the store cupboard by her, it was only for a couple of minutes at most but still looking back it was traumatising. She went out of her way to belittle and bully me, I had two years in her class and by half way through the second year she was doing this outside of her classroom too. I was in senior year and trying to focus on my exams. She made me waste my time I should have been devoting to other subject that I actually enjoyed and my grades suffered as a result.

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