When Teachers Bully Children

Stuart Chaifetz's video shows how abusive teachers victimize the vulnerable and the voiceless

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Mel Evans / AP

Stuart Chaifetz plays with his son Akian Chaifetz, 10, in the backyard of their home in Cherry Hill, N.J., April 25, 2012.

With more than 4.2 million views and counting, Stuart Chaifetz’s YouTube video is drawing attention to a situation no child, especially not one with special needs, should ever have to face: bullying by a teacher.

Akian Chaifetz is 10. He has autism, and according to his father Stuart, he suddenly began to have violent outbursts at school. Stuart was surprised and wondered what was provoking him. But Akian couldn’t describe what was going on in the classroom. So Stuart put a wire on him. Excerpts of the tape include heart-wrenching exchanges of Akian being verbally abused and brought to tears by his teacher and aide. At one point, one of his teachers said, “Oh, Akian, you are a bastard … Go ahead and scream because guess what? You’re going to get nothing until your mouth is shut. Shut your mouth!”

(MORE: Elisabeth Young-Bruehl: Childism: The Unacknowledged Prejudice Against Kids)

We’ve learned a lot about kids bullying other kids over the past decade. But with exceptions like this video, we don’t talk much about teachers bullying kids. It’s tough to know the exact scope of the problem, as research in this area is limited. We do, however, know a few things. There’s some evidence that teachers who experienced bullying themselves when they were young are more likely to bully students. These teacher bullies, categorized as bully-victim type, are usually less cruel compared with sadistic-type teacher bullies, who are callous, vicious, manipulative and degrading to all people, not just children.

Like child bullies and adult bullies in general, teacher bullies prey on people who are voiceless. Children with special needs are especially vulnerable because they belong to two groups without social power: children and people with disabilities. Students who are victimized by teachers are more likely to struggle academically, drop out of school and get involved in high-risk behaviors like drinking or drugs. What happens with these children when they become adults is again difficult to know. There is some data to suggest an association between teacher bullying and the development of personality disorders down the road.

(MORE: DeBenedet and Cohen: Have We Gone Overboard About Bullying?)

Listening to the secret tape of Akian’s classroom, it’s easy to imagine his teachers and aides frustrated, stressed, underpaid and undertrained. So are nursing-home or psychiatric-hospital workers, who have also been accused at times of mistreating their charges. Sociologists refer to such jobs as “dirty work,” ones like garbage collector and funeral director that are essential for a functioning society but are undervalued and underappreciated.

Still, this is no excuse. The lesson behind Stuart Chaifetz’s video is simple: adult bullies are no different than their child counterparts. They victimize the vulnerable and voiceless, whether it be children with special needs, elders or people with mental illness. And they often fly under the radar, with us missing the cues. When children, even those who can communicate verbally, try to tell adults that they’re being abused, they usually don’t say it in words but by misbehaving, as in Akian’s violent outbursts. If “shut your mouth” is the problem, then “open our ears” must be part of the solution. When we listen better to the voiceless, we begin to understand their plight, signifying to them a very strong message: we are connected. Your power is welcome here. You will be heard.

MORE: The Myths of Bullying