There's No Such Thing as a Bully: Common Sense vs. Zero Tolerance

The author re-evaluates zero tolerance.

When I first heard the term “zero tolerance” it was presented to me as a policy put in place to help kids, like my son, who were being bullied. I guess it sounded good at the time—it seemed school administrators were as outraged by the actions of a few select students as I was. But I soon came to view it as more of a problem than a solution.

Over the years, some administrators have proudly told me their school followed a “zero tolerance policy.” They boasted that if bullying was reported, or an “incident” took place, they would take it very seriously. Again, it sounded good at the time.

But suddenly I pictured someone looking at a child and saying blankly, “I have zero tolerance for you.” I couldn’t imagine that would help create change. 

And I soon learned that zero tolerance wasn’t just the school’s way of dealing with bullying behavior. It meant the victim would also suffer a few additional consequences—as if being bullied the first time around wasn’t quite enough. 

After I realized that, I had to stop myself from sighing or rolling my eyes each time I heard the term. To me it seemed more like an easy out—a way to avoid parental conflict and the need for common sense.

A while back got a call from an administrator at my son’s school, informing me that there had been “an incident,” similar to those I remember from my childhood. Just boy stuff, as my son called it. Still, without going into too much detail, my son was sitting in the nurses office with an ice pack, and for a moment, as any parent would, I was concerned that the bullying we had survived in elementary school was about to rear its ugly head again.

They put my son on the phone. Before he even spoke I took a breath and told him, “Remember, life is not about what happens to you. It’s about how you respond to what happens to you. So choose wisely.” 

Much to my relief, he responded, “Mom, it’s no big deal. He apologized. We’re going to have some lunch and work it out.”

I was relieved—and little proud.

The next day, I was summoned to the school, along with a parent of the other student, and I was concerned that what could be viewed as a great life lesson was about to be hijacked by zero tolerance. I was so pleased to find that, instead, I was met with an insightful approach to an isolated incident.

Everyone’s ego was checked at the door, and we all agreed that we should be happy that, instead of holding grudges, our boys had taken responsibility for their actions and worked out a conflict with maturity, while eating off a school lunch tray. They showed respect, improved communication and even expressed a little humor. 

Life is not perfect. Friendships can be rocky. If we teach our children to have zero tolerance for each other, how can we possibly expect them to forge any longterm relationships?

Common sense took the place of zero tolerance that day and I felt my son learned more about friendship because his school administrators approached the incident responsibly, but on a case-by-case basis.

There’s a lot of talk now about getting rid of “zero tolerance” policies, especially as it pertains to bullying behavior.

I’m all in.

Jaques Strape February 24, 2012 at 09:24 PM
Love the jacket/poop story
Jere Hochman February 27, 2012 at 11:53 AM
Good article - presents balance. Just curious, if there was a zero tolerance policy, would we have been subjected to a year of political debates and upcoming attack ads?
Dzeldaz March 01, 2012 at 04:05 PM
While your points have merit and much of your advise is good, your title is off-putting. There is such thing as a bully. The comments substantiate that fact. A child who is mercilessly stalked, harmed or threatened and fears harm or retribution if help is sought is being bullied by a bully. Your title is harmful in itself. Will it take a suicide of one close to you to convince you of that? Perhaps it will take a child snapping and killing his tormentor. Extremes? Maybe, unless or until your child is involved on one end or the other more seriously than you have experienced already. You are fortunate that your school handled a situation in that way. I have experienced administrators in CCSD who make assumptions, don't allow the children involved to speak to each other, dole out punishment without ever finding out what happened or give the kids a chance to work out a solution. Not only weren't parents allowed to meet, the administrators refused to say the name of the other child involved! It was more like jail than trying to teach children how to problem solve. That fosters resentment and disrespect of school officials. We then have to explain how foolish the administrators are because how can we support the nonsense of not teaching kids to work out concerns in a meaningful fashion? Thank goodness we are out of that situation for good and there are other sensible schools in this district with sensible leadership. There is such a thing as a bully. Teach your children well.
Edie Raether March 01, 2012 at 04:57 PM
I am speaking for CCSD this month and as the author of Stop Bullying Now...yes, it will be on how to intervene and prevent bullying. They are using my book and are quite motivated so hopefully if we are talking about the same CCSD....there is a great attitude toward continual improvement. Yes, there is a bully, but most bullies were first bullied themselves, often starting at home and thus they are also first victims so to speak, although generally avoid the word victim. Taryn, we should talk. My website is www.stopbullyingwithedie.com. Call me! Edie Raether The Bully Buster
Taryn Grimes-Herbert March 01, 2012 at 06:59 PM
Thanks for taking the time to comment. We're actually on the same page. The title is meant to make people think. To understand fully, I suggest you check out this recent column where I explain. http://newrochelle.patch.com/articles/there-s-no-such-thing-as-a-bully-what-s-in-a-name


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