"Verbal abuse of kids in classrooms is rather common, especially in athletics," says Patrick Lynch, a professor of school law at Pennsylvania State University who has researched legal remedies for emotional abuse in school.
According to Lynch, educators who call children names like "stupid," "dummy" or "fat slob" and otherwise behave in ways meant to embarrass them typically defend their actions as a kind of stimulus or motivation. "Nothing in psychological research demonstrates any positive value comes from verbal abuse," he says.
Research does show, however, that psychological injury can stem from verbal abuse. "There are unfortunate consequences," says Lynch. "Kids can be ruined. We don't know what extent those who do suffer are affected. A lot of kids can shrug it off. But why take the risk?"
Cases of maltreatment in the classroom are easier to resolve than in the home, primarily because society more readily recognizes the boundaries in the teacher-child interaction than in the parent-child relationship. While cases against teachers have been brought to court under charges of violation of the civil rights law, of defamation, even of educational malpractice, the legal system consistently has seen it as a matter of administrative discipline. "The most common and only feasible remedy is teacher dismissal," says Lynch, adding that the dismissal usually results from incompetency charges rather than psychological abuse charges.
There have been exceptions. Lynch reports a Pennsylvania case in 1977 in which the teacher who called a 12-year-old girl a "slut" and a "dog" was fired solely on the basis of verbal abuse. "The psychological dimensions of this being recognized in court is quite new and is happening more frequently," says Lynch. "We're not acting in a gray area that way. We know from studies that ... you don't call kids names, you don't dump on them and you don't diminish them.