November/December 2016

Survey finds perception of adult bullying among school leaders

By Pamela R. Rockwood
Pamela R. Rockwood, Ph.D., recently retired as superintendent of Indian Creek SD 425 and is currently assistant professor of educational leadership at Texas A&M University-Texarkana.

Perception is reality, or so it is said. Perceptions are based on our values and what we believe to be true.

In February of 2016, Illinois school board members and superintendents were asked to share their perceptions pertaining to adult bullying that they had experienced, witnessed, heard of, or perpetrated in their school districts during their service. The responses, with 20 percent of school districts in Illinois represented, showed the overall perception is that adult bullying is alive and well in their districts.

The idea for this survey and study came about as the result of a panel session, entitled “Bullied Boards, Board Bullies,” given by Indian Creek SD 425 during the 2015 Joint Annual Conference in Chicago. At that time, it was clear that attendees wanted more information on this topic and what is happening statewide regarding adult bullying and mobbing (collective bullying in the workplace). The survey began by first asking demographic questions such as role, gender, eth- nicity, the type of school district in which the responder served, and his or her age range. It then went on to ask questions pertaining to if the responder had ever been a bully, ever been bullied, had seen or heard of bullying in the district among adults (teachers, staff, administration), and types of bullying or mobbing tactics observed. If a responder indicated no perception in the dis-trict, no responses to further questions were included in the survey results. Those who responded to the survey were also asked if they had any adult bullying or mobbing incidents that they would like to share, with details such as names and locations kept confidential. A variety of sto-ries were offered. Some were stories of great pain.

Males made up 55 percent of the respondents. Two-thirds were board members. Half represented PK-12 school districts.

Two-thirds, or 67 percent of all responders, stated that they had personally experienced mobbing or bullying while in their present position, with 46 percent of them saying that it had occurred during the past year. Adult bullying caused chronic stress for 18 percent of respondents, and anxiety for 15 percent. The bullying tactic most used was slander, gossip, and rumors (21 per-cent); followed by verbal abuse and attacks (13 percent); and repeated criticism and blame (8 percent). Note that all three of these are of a verbal nature and combined make up 42 percent of the tactics used.

When responders were asked what bullying tactic they had observed used on others, again they identified slander, gossip, and rumors (26 percent) and verbal abuse and attacks (25 percent).

When responders were asked if they had ever bullied another adult within their district, 15 per-cent indicated either “yes” or “perhaps.” We can appreciate the honest responses, but also note that any number of responders replying positively to this question is too many.

According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, there is no workplace anti-bullying law in the United States. The Institute’s Healthy Workplace Campaign notes that Illinois was the 15th state to introduce its Healthy Workplace Bill. Senate Bill 2943   was introduced in 2015. The bill stayed in committee until the session ended sine die.

Illinois superintendents are required to comply with the Illinois Educator Code of Ethics which includes “Collaborating with colleagues in the local school and district to meet local and state educational standards” and “Working together to create a respectful, professional and supportive school climate that allows all educators to maintain their individual professional integrity.” In addition, most school districts have a policy (provided by the PRESS policy service from the Il- linois Association of School Boards) that includes the Illinois board member oath of office. This includes the statement: “I shall encourage and respect the free expression of opinion by my fel-low Board members and others who seek a hearing before the Board, while respecting the pri-vacy of students and employees.” Also of note is the fact that most boards of education approve their district’s student handbooks, and bullying is a prohibited and punishable action found within them.

Only 9.6 percent of the responders indicated that they had no knowledge of adult mobbing or bullying happening in their districts. Of the remaining responders, only 13.3 percent felt that the superintendent bullied board members and only 35 percent felt that board members bullied the superintendent. That good news relates to a 2010 dissertation study I did in PK-12 districts in Illinois that found that one of the most critical competencies for superintendent success in Illinois was to foster a strong superintendent-board relationship. In turn, that strong relationship leads to superintendent stability and increased length of tenure in the district. This is extremely important to student achievement as research by Timothy Waters and Robert J. Marzano has found that stability in superintendent leadership contributes to an increase in student achievement.

There were mixed perceptions among the responders in terms of if the community had bullied or mobbed the board or a board member, with a 50-50 split between those perceiving that this had happened and those perceiving it had not. The table on the previous page shows the results of other questions asked pertaining to responder perceptions of adult bullying or mobbing in their districts.

Overall, responders felt that males bully females the most (53 percent) and that females bully other females the most (84 percent). These results are consistent with a 2014 national workplace bullying survey, conducted by Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute, that indicated that both males and females perceived that, overall, females were bullied or mobbed more.

Responders in this survey also shared that whenever there was an adult bullying or mobbing in- cident in their district that 55 percent of them attempted to publicly help the victim or they re-ported the incident. They felt that the one factor most responsible for the mistreatment of the vic-tim was a personality flaw of the bully (40 percent), followed closely by bullies not being held accountable (37 percent). Research entitled “Relationships between bullying behaviours and the Dark Triad: A study with adults,” by Holly M Baughman, Sylvia Dearing, Erica A. Giammarco, and Philip A. Vernon, has indicated that most bullies fall in to one of the following three personality types: 1) narcissistic; 2) Machiavellian; or 3) psychopathic.

So, according to survey respondents, what finally stopped the adult bullying/mobbing of the victim? Sadly enough, 9 percent of the responders indicated that the target was terminated and 27 percent said that the bully was punished but kept their job.

The results of this survey were very informative and demonstrate the need for further discussion and increased training in various elements of human relations for all adults who work with and in the education field. To join the conversation on adult bullying among school leaders, attend the new panel session at the Joint Annual Conference.