The debate is over policy: Zero Tolerance Policies (where ALL acts of bullying result automatically in severe punishment, which in schools usually translates into suspension) sound good. Research, however, indicates it is ineffective at best.
Part of the problem is that Zero Tolerance Polices do not, by definition, incorporate (a) extenuating circumstances; (b) the fact that understanding what lead to the undesirable behavior is essential in determining the most effective responses; or, (c) the fact that what constitutes "punishment" various from each individual.
Here's one real life example (names have been changed):
Brody hit Charles in the school lunch room. Brody admits hitting him, tries to explain why - but the Dean, incensed with the action suspends him without an investigation.
But, is life ever that simple? What did Brody and Charles learn from this? What did their friends learn?
In truth, the scene above happens all too frequently in schools and is NEVER that simple.
In the above case, Charles began bullying Brody three years before this final incident. Brody typically would walk away when pushed and berated but not report it because he felt ashamed of being victimized. On this day in question, after homeroom, Charles again began calling Brody names. Brody walked away and Charles stalked after him. Other kids observed this but no school personnel took notice. Brody was a quiet kid, never got into trouble, helped his classmates and was considerate of others. Charles was not liked by others and was often found engaged in verbal arguments. Charles kept harassing Brody - who kept walking away. Finally Brody turned to Charles and asked him to leave him alone and stop stalking him. They were in the lunch room. Charles pushed Brody, and Brody in desperation punched Charles. The punch is what the administration saw. Charles refuted Brody's story (initially) and Brody was suspended. It was only after Brody's mom complained that the school began asking kids what happened and Brody's story was corroborated.
What was gained by the school's action? Charles' bullying was reinforced - Brody got into real trouble. Brody became a victim not only of Charles' bullying but of the school administration's blind eye to detail and circumstances. Other students saw who was reinforced and punished in this scenario and they learned too.
Until witnessing this scenario I was a strong proponent of Zero Tolerance policies. Bullying should not be tolerated - be it physical,verbal, visual or sexual bashing. In the case above, however, the Zero Tolerance policy reinforced Charles' bullying and further humiliated Brody. Brody should not have fallen victim yet again, and Charles' bullying should not have been reinforced by punishing only Brody (further validating Charles' behavior).
- There should be no tolerance anywhere for bullying, name calling. harassment of any sort.
- Bullying begins with words and physical cues and postures. These words and postures should be the first behaviors addressed when dealing with inappropriate social interactions. We should not wait for the physical manifestations.
- There must be negative consequences for all harassers and all forms of harassment.
- The first rule, however, of behavior modification is that when punishing someone for any type of act, the punishment has to be perceived to be a punishment by the person receiving said punishment. SO, if a kid likes being alone in a room, sending them to a room for time out as punishment, will not be effective. Therefore, having predetermined punishments, by definition is not the most effective means of shaping behavior.
- When punishing - make sure you have all the facts before passing judgement. Realize that getting these facts may take some time.
- If you see bullying on television or a movie, or read about it in a book, or see it happening in the playground - talk to your child about it. Talk about how it feels to be a victim, talk about how to defuse a bully, talk about seeking adult help, and talk about NOT being ashamed if it happens to you.
- If your child is being bullied, talk about it. Empathize with him or her, validate their feelings. Brainstorm possible solutions explaining that there may not be any quick fixes but making sure your child sees some form of response and consequence. If this is happening in school, talk to teachers and administrators. Document the bullying. Be persistent in checking in with the school and your child.