June 20, 2016
My Experience With Contrapower Harassment in a Community College Setting
I’ve been teaching at a local community college for over 10 years. It’s a generally good campus with a diverse student population and I always planned on retiring from this campus.
One issue I’ve dealt with since I started was challenging students- and the behaviors are escalating. I’m a younger, very petite female. I have a high voice and like to wear nerdy science shirts and jewelry. But I run my classroom with strict standards of behavior and academic integrity. I teach an Allied Health pre-requisite class and am the coordinator of all the sections of my subject. I take my role as the lead instructor seriously and maintain high standards and a pretty “no-nonsense” attitude.
For the longest time I figured the (primarily) male students who challenge my authority in classroom, the snide comments, and online anonymous hate comments from “Rate My Professor” were just the cost of being a teacher in college. Sometimes I would even write it off as a cultural issue due to our diverse student population because many of my male students come from patriarchal cultures. The level of disrespect has been one I thought I SHOULD tolerate- it never kept me up at night, I never had anyone physically threaten, so I didn’t worry. (Notice how I just accepted the harassment and never even considered that it was a problem? I continually ask myself now where that attitude came from.)
Last year I had one student who I nicknamed to my friends as “ugh, the Thorn in My Side” (due to confidentiality we do not use any identifying features about students- even when venting to non-teacher friends). He walked in with an air of indifference. He challenged my comments in class. He did not work with a study group in lab. His lab questions were always along the line of “Why do I have to do it this way?” I just figured he was a difficult student and that once he finished my class he’d go away. He often left lab early, and I would breathe a sigh of relief because I could teach without worry of challenge again during open lab time.
As the semester progressed two issues arose, that I didn’t document because I didn’t know better: the student was not passing and the student’s passive-aggressive attitude escalated. He would show to office hours, which I held in my tutoring center, and be extremely unpleasant to me and my tutors (in retrospect…only my female tutors reported problems with him). It got to the point that I dreaded my office hours. I made them by appointment only. I didn’t tell anyone why. I figured that as long as I kept up my office hours that I was OK, and really the only student coming in with “questions” (i.e., complaints about my teaching, content, rigor) was this one male. His comments were often challenges to my grading because I have a strict spelling policy and state “if I cannot read your writing I cannot assign you credit”.
Near the end of the semester I offered a replacement final exam to help students boost scores. The rules were clear: sign up to take the exam. The student did not sign up, but sent me a rude, challenging e-mail stating that he wanted to take the test. When I reiterated my policy I finally thought “Eh, I should contact my department chair. This student has caused me a lot of trouble”. After the stress this student had put me through I figured a heads up e-mail would be enough to keep me covered in case he complained to the chair.
The guidelines in my syllabus, which follow school procedures, are that students who have grade complaints try to resolve the issue with me first (with a witness in the meeting), then go up the chain of command (department chair, Dean, etc.). If a student has an issue other than grades the student contacts the Dean of Student Affairs.
I found out that the student wrote every member of our Governing Board and the Chancellor. His letter was full of veiled threats against me and the school that were clearly written to intimidate us and bully me into submission for changing his grade. Because the threats were basically public relations types of issues, nothing to assume physical attacks or property damage, the student was referred to administration.
Administration failed to follow the guidelines set forth in the syllabus and student code of conduct. The Dean and Vice President met with the student. They did not notify the department chair. I was then queried, several times, via e-mail and in person by the Dean regarding my class and its policies. I supplied all of my documentation in the class. I supplied my syllabus and asked if the student had been referred back to me per my syllabus policy. I never got answers to that question.
For the next 6 weeks I kept getting e-mails about this student. The VP and President got involved to meet with the student (at least twice that I know of). I was never contacted by either of those administrators. I felt that I had to prove myself to these people, and that they had no vested interest in defending me as a faculty member. None of the administrators involved are experts in Allied Health. The only one who has ever seen me instruct is the Dean- who assigns me top marks in my peer evaluation. I have some of the highest student evaluation scores that I know of from talking with colleague- despite my reputation for rigor. None of this was ever discussed. The Dean, instead, looked up my attrition rates and said they “weren’t great”. He told me in person that if this were for another subject- math or physics- my attrition rates would not be so bad. I felt as if my entire reputation was being set by this one complaint that was handled out of due process and without any personal involvement by me. And I was told be the Dean that at the end of each meeting the student’s query was the same – could I be forced to change his grade to passing?
I started to feel sad. I cried a lot, wasn’t sleeping, and wasn’t eating. I know my teaching suffered. I was more terse with my students and didn’t have the energy to run my classroom with the same enthusiasm as I normally would. I remember going out to a Halloween event and just leaking tears in the car the whole way, then being thankful we were in a dark environment because I just cried all evening.
I started having panic attacks and canceled some classes. This, of course, made things worse because I was already feeling like a bad teacher and then I felt like I was failing even more. I wrote a resignation letter and started looking into admissions criteria for a DPT program. I told my husband that I had to get out.
Every time my campus e-mail pinged on my computer my heart would race and my stomach would ache. I was just waiting for another e-mail asking me to document my professional worth against this single student. (To this day I have not heard personally from the administration, except the Dean, regarding this issue. I have been in meetings with them both, and feel bad about myself. I feel that they will never hold me in respect over this incident. When I have spoken in meetings with them I honestly feel that they are not listening to my comments.)
I sought professional help. My therapist diagnosed me with adjustment disorder (situational depression) and anxiety. I went on beta blockers to help me deal with the elevated blood pressure and tachycardia that seemed to affect me all the time. My therapist asked who else on campus I had spoken with. “No one,” I answered. She stated that my case seemed to be one of contrapower harassment and encouraged me to speak out. I had never heard of contrapower harassment and so I started becoming an internet junky for the topic.
I contacted my department chair. The department chair was livid that I had been treated this way. The department chair told me I should have come forward sooner, that I would have been supported from the beginning. I didn’t expect that. I felt so much stress and shame that I could not handle this problem on my own, and I felt powerless because the head administrators in the school have been dismissive of me.
My department chair contacted our union. They also advised me speak with the Dean of Student Affairs because I did say I felt harassed. When I spoke with the Dean and explained the situation the Dean said there was really nothing that could be done. The Dean said the student was being mean and must have been aware of what he was doing, but that really he had not broken any rules in the Student Code of Conduct! When I pointed out the student had not passed my class and that he might retake (I was concerned he would do it out of spite) I was told my only recourse was to switch sections if I saw him on my rosters. Where is my protection in this situation? That is how it stands at our school today- if a teacher feels harassed by a student (that is not physical or sexual) then all the teacher can do is be vigilant on the roster and surreptitiously switch the teaching assignment to avoid the student.
I don’t know what our union representatives did or said, but eventually the e-mails stopped. My last e-mail was a forwarded response from the Dean. The President wrote the student with a “final” response to his complaints and basically apologized to the student for his experience in my classroom.
I know the student is still on campus. I saw him walking across the quad last semester. I almost had a panic attack and turned immediately to walk the other way. It’s all I can do.
There are some lingering effects… I don’t trust my administration. My heart still jumps a little when my work e-mail comes in. I worry that this student will be allowed to haunt me for a very long time. And the resignation letter, with this brief summary of the hell I went through for 3 months, sit in a folder on my desktop.