By Lorna Stremcha
My book is now in the hands of editors and I’m hoping it will be on bookshelves soon. It describes what happens when bureaucratic bullies try to cover up, intimidate and harass a tenured school teacher. Following is an edited excerpt from “Sins of Our Schools: After the Bell Rings” that describes what it sometimes takes to fight bullies in powerful positions.
Looking at all the boxes stacked in my basement, I still wonder how I survived four years of legal wrangling. Many attorneys feel that this part of the law is all a “game”. It wasn’t a game to me. It was a pursuit of justice. Thanks to my family and faith, we survived it all.
My book only described some of the more important events that happened during this four- year period. There is no way I could convey the mind numbing details that dominated every day of my life.
The administration’s response to my complaint before the Montana Human Rights Commission eventually caused me to pursue multiple legal avenues. I had to file specific grievances against the school, additional complaints before the Montana Human Rights Commission, and finally State and Federal lawsuits. That’s the way the system works. It’s difficult and complicated. When dealing with our public schools, you can’t just file a lawsuit. There is formula for everything.
In today’s world of high self-esteem, it’s sometimes difficult to determine when (and if) you have a case. Many of us don’t take criticism well and are very thin-skinned. The first step I recommend is to take a good look within. Ask yourself if your boss or coworker is truly a bully, or if he/she is offering what they think might be constructive criticism about your work or professional abilities.
Study numerous books and articles concerning bullying behavior. Make some lists and determine if you are truly the target of a bully. If that is the case, your next decision is whether or not it’s worth it to stay in that toxic environment. Would you and your family be better off if you left and found another job? If that’s the case, move on. If you are in a job that you love and want to stay, then it’s time to fight.
Learn about the laws in your state. There are numerous laws on the books about various kinds of harassment. In many states the law hasn’t caught up with the bully. It is critical to build a case by documenting everything.
Journals and notebooks are valuable tools. Even events that might seem unimportant now could become critical in a legal action. When keeping records remember who, what, when, where, and how of reporting. Dates are especially important.
Keep all your documentation in a safe place and keep it organized from the start. Never give anyone an original. Make copies and keep originals and copies in separate locations.
Speak out! Tell others what is happening. If you are fortunate enough to have a trusted friend or coworker ask them to write down their impressions. If others have witnessed events that you describe in your journal, ask them to sign and date the documents.
Remember the human resources person has the same employer as you do. It’s only natural that their first loyalty will be to the source of their paycheck. Do not consider them a friend who is there to listen, comfort, and console. In this case try to leave your emotions at the door and discuss only the events in question. Be brief and to the point. Not everyone will believe you. No matter what you say, many will choose to believe those in authority.
Know the contents of your collective bargaining contract. If your employer has a list of employee rights, get and keep a copy. Ask for your personnel file and insist that they provide the entire file, not selected pages. Check the file on a regular basis. Make copies each time.
Even though it seems futile, continue to scrupulously follow company policy. Use the state and federal laws that pertain to employee rights. If you don’t know the laws, find someone that does. Work with them. Obtain legal counsel before filing any complaint.
Before hiring an attorney evaluate your financial situation. Almost every legal battle costs more and takes longer than anticipated. Ask yourself if this case is so important that you are willing to mortgage your house, dip into the children’s college fund, and take every dollar from the savings account in order to possibly obtain satisfaction and justice. There are some legal aid organizations that might be willing to help, in certain situations, but the sad financial fact is that you will be on your own.
Once you decide to fight here are some things you need to know:
- Know that your battle will be long and arduous.
- Know you will have enemies.
- Know that some friends will become enemies.
- Know you are not crazy.
- Know you will feel alone, even when the room is full.
Above all, take comfort in your friends and your family. They will provide security and strength in what will probably be a long journey. It won’t be easy. If you are following the right path, you will hopefully reach a safe end to the journey.
Working with my attorneys I learned there are different components to discrimination, hostile work environment, workplace bullying, and sexual harassment cases. The information I provide is based on my experience. Again, I encourage you to seek legal counsel. Find someone experienced in employment law.
In some states there are no laws concerning bullying. You must learn the language of your laws and find the best tools with which to fight your own case. It might be age discrimination, sexual harassment, or a hostile workplace environment. Sadly, just because you have been bullied it might not mean you have a legal case.
Sexual harassment can be the result of a single incident. Individual incidents of bullying tend to be trivial and often are not enough to merit disciplinary or grievance action. Bullying is an accumulation of small incidents which slowly grow over a long period. Bullying occurs usually, but not always, when one person (or many persons) in positions of power or authority feels threatened by another person or subordinate that displays qualities or abilities which the bully believes he/she can never possess.
Workplace bullying is the repeated mistreatment of one employee targeted by one or more employees with a malicious mix of humiliation, intimidation, and sabotage of performance. Bullying crosses the boundaries of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, and age. Anyone can be a bully and anyone can be bullied. Those who are bullied often find themselves with little, if any, support. If it goes on long enough, job performance suffers and that may often lead to job loss.
Bullies prey on those weaker than themselves. Often their targets are employees under their supervision. That makes it easy for them. Their goal is simple: to make everyone around them look bad while they look good.
We can all recognize a bully. I have described several in my book. The Internet is full of discussions concerning this problem. Always remember it is up to you to prove that you are being bullied.
Lorna Stremcha is the author of, Lose the Baggage, Lose the Weight…a woman-to-woman recipe for life, an award winning teacher, an advocate against school and workplace bullying, a listed speaker for Bullying Police USA and is one of the first thirteen individuals to co-author the healthy work place bullying act in the United States. Today Lorna shares her life lessons with others in hopes of helping them live a healthier life after bullying and sexual harassment. Lorna’s second book, Sins of Our Schools: After the Bell Rings is set to be released soon.