The hashtag #TimesUp is emblematic of the movement to end sexual harassment against women that has only grown since the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke. But it could very well stand as a movement for students against educators who harass them.
Last week, in a letter addressed to the “KIPP Team and Family,” the executive leadership of the powerful charter school network announced the dismissal of one of its co-founders, Mike Feinberg, stemming from a sexual abuse allegation by one of Feinberg’s students from the late 1990s. Feinberg is a powerful figure in education, leading as he does a network of more than 200 charter schools that teach approximately 90,000 students. His eventual firing was based on “credible evidence” of sexual misconduct drawn from an internal and external investigation. The leadership based their action on reports from two adult alumnae who were also hired by the organization. Feinberg’s lawyer told The New York Times that his client, who denies the accusations, was never informed of the exact charges nor given a chance to defend himself.
We should expect an increase in announcements similar to the KIPP letter from the education field, where men are much more likely to occupy leadership positions. Women comprise 76 percent of teachers, 52 percent of principals and less than a quarter of all superintendents, according to a survey conducted this summer by AASA, the School Superintendents Association. Education is a “pink-collar” profession, long dominated by women, associated with caregiving, and subject to lower salaries. It’s striking that even in a field where women make up three-quarters of the workers, they make up only half of the decision-making leadership in schools, and even less than that at the superintendent level.
One of the benefits men gain from their overrepresentation in leadership is that it discourages women from lodging a complaint.
The KIPP letter stated, “We recognize this news will come as a shock to many in the KIPP Team and Family as we struggle to reconcile Mr. Feinberg’s 24 years of significant contributions with the findings of this investigation.” But should it be so much of a shock? As the #MeToo revelations have shown, sexual harassment and abuse is way more prevalent in the workplace than previously acknowledged. There’s no reason schools would be safe against it.
Plus, in a school setting, there’s also opportunity for other kinds of abuse — racial discrimination, physical assault and verbal abuse — and it’s black children who bear the brunt.
A first grader, cross-legged and controlled, was pressed by her teacher to apply a mathematical process to answer a question. Fishing for the right answer, the girl incorrectly replied with something she hoped would appease her teacher.
It didn’t. The teacher grabbed the girl’s paper, ripped it apart and shoved it toward the student in disgust, in front of the entire class. “Go to the calm-down chair and sit,” she said to the child who was already calm, if confused. As the girl scuttled off, the teacher said, “There’s nothing that infuriates me more than when you don’t do what’s on your paper.” An assistant teacher secretly recorded the incident. The children’s faces are blurred to protect their privacy, but it appears the victim is of a darker hue.
The teacher, Charlotte Dial of Success Academy charter school in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, was suspended and investigated in 2016, but she returned to her post a week and a half later, according to a New York Times report. The school is part of the Success Academy network of charters led by Eva S. Moskowitz, one of the most powerful charter advocates in the country. For anyone who follows Moskowitz or Success Academy, the teacher’s behavior wasn’t a surprise. The rise of Moskowitz and Success Academy has been built upon the successful “disciplining” of black children. In response to her schools’ high suspension rates, Moskowitz replied, “It is horrifying” that the critics don’t realize that “five-year-olds do some pretty violent things,” according to the research group The Albert Shanker Institute, which has been critical of the practices upheld in Moskowitz’s schools. Moskowitz justifies the use of abuse to redirect children’s behavior.
Abuse that is poorly disguised as discipline isn’t just passed off as education; it’s also a means to gain power and prestige. Many of the most successful charter leaders are some of the biggest offenders of harsh punishment. Some of the most academically successful schools, such as KIPP, Collegiate Academies in New Orleans and Roxbury Prep in Boston, have also developed reputations for being the meanest. Expelling students gets you more schools, notoriety and “results.” Worse, it can provide protection.
Be it verbal or sexual assault, abuse hides in plain sight in schools, and children are the most vulnerable victims. Students need their own hashtag. There’s simply little recourse for a child who walks under the constant threat of abusive educators who are rewarded for punishing black children.
Especially in the world of education, students — and teachers — need ways to identify their abusers and harassers without fear of reprisal. We need to evaluate schools’ climates alongside their academic performances. Schools need ombudsmen who are empowered to hear cases of alleged abuse. We must offer opportunities for students to report potential abuse when they leave a system. For instance, when students graduate, transfer or are expelled, they should be able to take an anonymous survey managed by an external agency that includes questions about potential abuse. There are ways to garner this kind of sensitive information in ways that protect students.
Academic performances have to be placed in a context. Student and family satisfaction contextualizes how school performance is perceived and treated. As a former administrator, I’ve seen how family concerns have been ignored and discounted. I’ve seen school leaders outright deny services to students with special needs; I’ve witnessed board meetings go into executive session to avoid parents’ input and watched teachers berate parents for not being fully “engaged” with the school, i.e., not doing as they are told.
There’s research on the value of climate studies, which look at the perceptions of students, staff and parents of the school or district, especially the social and emotional impact they have on students. There are models out there. The U.S. Department of Education under the Obama administration started a high-quality, adaptable ED School Climate Surveys (EDSCLS), which measures how students feel about aspects of the school environment. The San Francisco-based nonprofit YouthTruth conducts several national student surveys, which include assessments of student/teacher relationships, the pervasiveness of bullying and academic rigor.
Educators’ abuse of power can only be mitigated if students and teachers are given a voice. Feinberg acted as an individual, but he benefited from a biased system that favors powerful men. It’s past time we heard how students and teachers really feel about their time in school. If we listen, we will be able to unearth the predators who have thus far been protected by their power.