The big bully on campus
Teachers at an Oxnard elementary school speak out against allegedly abusive principal
By Shane Cohn 03/14/2013
Editor’s note: The VCReporter has just learned that Principal Marie Pierre of Christa McAuliffe Elementary School has been place on paid administrative leave for the remainder of the school year, effective immediately.
Bullying has become more than schoolyard intimidation, or faceless cyber threats.
The principal of an Oxnard elementary school, whose district has adopted an international program to reduce bullying among school children, is being accused of aggressively bullying and humiliating her teachers since August.
Stemming from numerous complaints, a formal investigation was launched.
During the Oxnard School District Board of Trustees regular meeting on Wednesday, March 6, teachers from Christa McAuliffe Elementary School — and their supporters — stood in unison as they read emotional testimonies about workplace abuse, harassment and bullying carried out by the school’s principal.
“Our self-esteem is being torn apart and the working conditions are unbearable,” said Amanda Wilson, first-grade teacher and Oxnard Educators Association (OEA) site representative at McAuliffe for the past eight years, during the public board meeting.
Wilson described a fearful working environment that ultimately reflects back to the students, as teachers have been working in fear of having their jobs threatened, being humiliated, or with basic preparatory tasks being made impossible to execute, all due to the alleged bullying tactics by the school’s principal.
While Wilson and other speakers never identified the school administrator by name, the school’s principal is first-year hire Marie Pierre, who previously worked in the Saugus Union School District.
“We are fearful with our encounters with her,” said Wilson. “We hide and eat lunch in our classrooms or our cars. We take the longest route possible to get to our destination just to avoid contact with her. We’re exhausted because we have to endure her varying and unpredictable temperament. We are the victims of her bullying.”
Pierre did not respond to VCReporter’s e-mail or phone requests for comment.
Teachers who were interviewed for this story all chose to remain anonymous, except for Wilson, fearing retaliation from their administrator, but all confirmed that the bullying began on day one of the school year in August, with reports of Pierre aggressively chastising everything from their teaching methods to where they parked their cars.
“We need her to go. I don’t see how school survives with her,” said a McAuliffe teacher.
Multiple formal complaints about Pierre were filed with the district and an investigation was opened.
Superintendent Jeff Chancer couldn’t comment on the issue, citing personnel reasons, but confirmed that follow-up on the complaints is in process.
“Since teachers filed formal complaints, the incidents between staff members and admin have increased, not decreased,” said Wilson. “We are experiencing almost daily attacks.”
Gary Grayson, whose wife teaches at McAuliffe, said in a letter to the board that his wife now experiences shortness of breath and recently fainted, likely due to the workplace bullying at McAuliffe.
“Never in our 21 years together has she brought home more horror stories from school than she has this school year,” wrote Grayson. “Being a teacher, I know about the stress level that can occur — I teach high school. But this time, it’s not the students. It’s the leadership under the current principal. And from what I’ve observed first-hand these past six months, it’s the situation at Christa McAuliffe that is very unhealthy and very damaging.”
Another teacher, who chose anonymity, said, “Every Sunday night, I am so anxious I can hardly sleep because I know what’s going to happen on Monday. I’m going to show up and be confronted, accused of something, treated badly or even ignored.”
Trustee Denis O’Leary said the board is looking into the problems at McAuliffe, and trying to bring both sides together, but couldn’t state specifics because of personnel issues.
“The bottom line is, we have to make sure it doesn’t affect working conditions and the education of the kids,” he said.
According to the Workplace Bullying Institute, 54 million Americans say they’ve been bullied at work. Of those, 78 percent lose their jobs either by quitting or through termination. While laws are in place to protect employees from sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace, bullying is not unlawful and an employer must establish good cause and evidence for terminating the “bully.”
In the case of an administrator, such as Pierre, the district could either place the employee on paid administrative leave until the end of the school year, or choose to non-re-elect the employee for the position.
“All of us want and deserve a workplace where we can do our jobs to the best of our abilities — a workplace free of fear and full of respect,” said Robin Lefkovits, OEA president. “No one comes to work hoping to be humiliated or berated, but it happens.”
Wilson pointed out that Oxnard School District has adopted the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, an internationally used program to reduce and prevent bullying problems among school children and to improve peer relations at schools. Yet, in an ironic twist, it is the school’s leader who has allegedly become the bully at McAuliffe.
“According to Olweus . . . students who bully have a strong need for power and negative dominance,” said Wilson. “Take out the word students and replace it with our administrator and you have abuse, harassment and workplace bullying.”