Bullying Teachers and Teachers Bullying

Gabriel Sherman’s excellent story on an uproar at an elite private high school in The Bronx over privacy and bullying on Facebook is well worth your time. The central lesson: kids, monitor those privacy controls carefully.

Briefly, I’d just like to note that teachers often exert subtle and not-so-subtle pressure on their students, and it’s only very rarely that they are called on it. Yes, the kids at Horace Mann are rich and privileged. But does that mean they deserve the contempt of their teachers? Of course not.

Students questioned once again why the same teachers who had cracked down on student expression on Facebook were now defending the free speech of a colleague who had made fun of students in his novel. “When it was students saying things about teachers—and I’m not equating—they were immediately punished,” said Jessica Moldovan, a member of the class of 2007. “And when it was a teacher making certain statements about students, about the way we act, many of which were fabricated and exaggerated, you know, he was fighting back and saying freedom of speech.” Other students complained about teachers who passed around petitions in class defending Trees. “It was borderline coercive,” said Michael Marcusa, then student-body vice-president. “The overall principle of trying to bring students into a dispute with the administration is unprofessional.”

This kind of thing happens near-constantly — teachers think it is perfectly fine to “teach” their students into their own ideological framework, whether it is Bible-believing Christianity or something else. Consider Danielle McGuire, a teacher at the heart of the story. After coming across a Facebook group that was harshly critical of her teaching, and that included offensive, racially-charged images, she identified her enemy:

And then, McGuire saw the name that bothered her most. We’ll call him Jeffrey Robbins.

Jeffrey was McGuire’s most antagonistic student from sophomore U.S. history the previous year. Jeffrey challenged McGuire’s focus on liberal politics and civil rights, proposing to write his class research project on plagiarism in Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches and saying that his hero was Roy Cohn—himself a Horace Mann alumnus. The previous spring, after he lost a student-judged essay competition, Jeffrey had stormed into the history-department office, railing against McGuire’s sexism and claiming she was biased against his work.

Wouldn’t it be nice to hear the young man’s version of events? “Storming” into the office sounds unwise. But I’d like to know more

A few weeks later, Jeffrey accused McGuire of maligning his mentor, Sam Gellens, a more conservative world-history instructor, in class. The school investigated and found no evidence to substantiate his claims.

“Evidence” — where is this evidence going to come from?


Then a senior, who hadn’t viewed the sites himself, submitted a letter to the Record criticizing McGuire and another teacher for accessing the Facebook pages. Having learned that she was named in the letter, McGuire e-mailed Kelly and a dean who oversaw the paper hours before the newspaper was set to close, warning that she would sue for defamation if the letter appeared in print.

And then:

The following Tuesday, October 10, Kelly and Tischler called McGuire into a meeting. Tischler accused McGuire of “tearing the community apart” by viewing Facebook. Kelly added that the board chairman wanted her to write a letter to the Record explaining her actions. This was part of Jeffrey Robbins’s campaign to harass her, McGuire protested. Kelly replied that, in fact, there was a new allegation—the one leveled by the trustee in front of Tillinghast Hall—that McGuire had called Jeffrey a “Nazi” in class. “I hate to tell you this,” Kelly said, “but there is a rumor of a tape.”

That night, McGuire sobbed. As a senior in college, after setting out to study world religions, she had decided to convert to Judaism. She had been married for a year now to a Jewish doctor at Bellevue. How could she be accused of anti-Semitism?

How odd — when one is accused of being a Nazi (as I have been, for defending the State of Israel, and perhaps you’ve been called the same thing), I don’t assume one is being accused of being an anti-Semite. I understand that many left-wing critics of Israel attacks its settlement policies, its military occupation, etc., as Nazi-like. The Bush White House is also often charged with being Nazi-like without being accused of being anti-Semitic. It seems entirely plausible that McGuire could have accused a student she clearly despised — she leaps to conclusions about him, as is apparent from a story broadly sympathetic to her — of being a “fascist” or perhaps even a “Nazi” without any anti-Semitic intent.

A working-class girl from rural Wisconsin, she had earned a doctorate from Rutgers. Her essay “It Was Like All of Us Had Been Raped,” about sexual violence in the civil-rights era, was anthologized in Best American History Essays 2006. But none of that seemed to matter. Before going to bed, McGuire wrote Bienstock. She was afraid to come to work, she confided.

This sounds horrible. No one should be put in this position. But of course teaching adolescents is not for the faint of heart, at Horace Mann or at one of the neighboring public high schools.