Advice to a student who is being abused by teachers
From Kelly Patrick Gerling, Ph.D., December 25, 2000
Hi Monica,

Your "distress call" on a message board caught my attention. I'm sad that you have been hurt as you described in school. You deserve respect, not abuse.

I hope you will consider ways to protect yourself. When I went through similar treatment in an all boys school in 1967 in 9th grade, I changed schools the next year. We were paddled harshly, pushed violently against lockers, forced to fight each other for punishment and things like that. I still regret, over 30 years later that I did nothing to help other students at that school get more respect and reduce or eliminate abuse.

What are the ways to protect yourself? (These are things I wish I had done.)

Get a lawyer - you may be able to challenge the violent treatment as assault. Try calling the ACLU for support.

Write up your story in a letter and send it in a progression to important people:

- your teacher
- your principal
- the school board members
- state board of education
- the local newspapers
In such a letter, I suggest describing what happened to you; the pain you've experienced; the values that have been violated such as disrespect, abuse, mistreatment and humiliation; and what treatment you would rather have; and the important values that the desired treatment would fulfill, like trust, respect, kindness, an atmosphere conducive to learning, etc.

If you get no commitment to treat you with respect without abuse at one level, with your teacher, for example, you can send the letter to the next level, the principal, and so on up the ladder of power.

Another idea: Start up or contribute to an independent student newspaper. It can be paper or based on e-mail or a website. You and others can relate stories of respectful treatment by teachers and administrators as well as disrespectful treatment from others in similar positions. Such a newspaper can also evaluate and rate teachers and classes for effectiveness, respect and competence for better or for worse. After all, feedback is a crucial basis for both learning and creating social change.

Democratizing schools with student feedback in decision is one of the greatest opportunities to improve our society in a short time. And abuse by certain school adults can be the catalytic factor that brings about real change towards democratic participation by folks who had been excluded by participation. (Look into the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley California in 1964. There is an excellent video, perhaps at the library.) Are students represented on planning or governing boards in your school? If not, why not? One answer to why not: if they aren't it is because students haven't insisted on it.

Why are there weekends for workers? It is because workers organized against mean and oppressive tactics by employers to gain time off, get limited work weeks, overtime pay, safer working conditions, freedom from abuse on the job, and much more. Read about the Ludlow massacre in 1915 to see the price workers were willing to pay for their rights. Read Howard Zinn's, The People's History of the United States for more information about much of the history of popular struggles.

You could find other students who want to join you. Groups can boycott school or certain teachers and their classes, letting the papers know what you are doing and why. Your parents may or may not want to support your efforts at gaining respectful treatment. That is how racial minorities got more rights, for example, with the bus strike in 1955 led by Rosa Parks, Dr. King, Ed Nixon, Ralph Abernathy, Jesse Jackson, and about 30,000 other people. Student rights are just as legitimate as civil rights. Ageism is just as bad as racism, and worth opposing, especially when assault is involved.

Get on the list to receive encouraging information pertaining the quest to gain rights for young people not to be subject to violence from adults.

Self-defence is the only lawful, ethical use of violence, in my opinion. Discipline, enforcement of rules, etc., should be done in non-violent ways.

It is important, if you want respect, to oppose violence both non-violently and respectfully. Go watch the Gandhi movie for examples. Better yet, read Gandhi's writings as well as Dr. King's letters and speeches.

Below I enclose an op-ed piece I wrote that was published in The Kansas City Star not long ago. That describes what I advocate regarding student rights that would represent what I desire in the near future, both in society in in schools.

If students were involved in governance in the school and at the district or board level, such treatment as you describe could be opposed directly with people and as people who can make decisions with the power of positional authority behind you.

I hope this letter has been supportive and encouraging to read. Below are links to my articles, "From Adult Rule to Particpatory Democracy" and "More youths will vote if given the chance to participate." They are about schools. I hope you will read them.


See From Adult Rule to Participatory Democracy, by Kelly Patrick Gerling

See More youths will vote if given the chance to participate, by Kelly Patrick Gerling

Kelly Patrick Gerling is the founder and chief executive officer of the Leadership Project Inc., a research and consulting group based in Merriam, Kansas. They specialize in helping organizations develop the leadership in their organization that will help them practice and live the values they preach and believe in. He can be reached at 913-724-2400 or He invites readers to visit The Leadership Project at

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