Why We Need Zero Tolerance for Zero Tolerance

Dear Mr. Dad: A few days after school started, my 9-year old son started coming home crying. I asked him what was wrong and he said, “Nothing.” But when he started refusing to go to school in the mornings, I pushed the issue and he broke down and told me he’s being bullied by an older child. My son’s school has a zero-tolerance bullying policy and I expected better from them. Should I confront the bully’s parents?

A: Bullying has probably been around as long as there have been people.  Accurate statistics on how many kids are being bullied are hard to come by—the numbers range from 20 percent of kids all the way up to 90 percent. But even if you take the low end of the range, that’s still millions of kids. And there are several concepts that most people agree on:

-          More than 150,000 children stay home from school every day because they’re being bullied

-          Most victims don’t ever report it to teachers, school administrators, or parents

The good news is that your son actually told you what’s been happening, which means you can at least try to deal with it. The bad news is that traditional methods of dealing with bullies have not been successful. In fact, many of them have actually backfired, according to Carrie Goldman, author of an eye-opening new book, “Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know about the Cycle of Fear.”

For example, peer mediation—which means putting the bully and victim together under controlled circumstances—has been shown to make things worse for the victims. So has grouping bullies together in support groups. “Putting bullies together has been shown to cause an increase in their aggressive behavior toward victims, because they try to out-bully each other in order to establish dominance,” says Goldman.

The biggest surprise for me was that zero-tolerance policies (like the one at your son’s school and many others around the country) don’t work either. According to Goldman, studies indicate that rather than reducing bad behavior, being suspended or expelled increases the likelihood that a student will misbehave—and get suspended—again.

So what does work? A pretty new idea called “restorative justice.” If, for example, a bully breaks another kid’s lunchbox and ruins his lunch, an appropriate response might be to make the bully buy a new lunch box, find out the victim’s favorite foods, and make him lunch the next day. And when it comes to cyberbullying, a bully who has posted nasty things on someone’s Facebook timeline or has spread lies or rumors might be required to send out a follow-up email or text to the same list admitting that the original message was a lie and apologizing for having done it.

As far as how to respond, first, thank your son for being honest with you. Then, be sure he knows that you take this seriously.  Ask him to report the incidents to his teacher. If the teacher doesn’t do something, talk to the school principal. If she doesn’t take action, call the school board.

Don’t encourage your son to respond physically to the bully. By all means, teach him how to protect himself defensively, but hitting or pushing the bully will most likely just make him mad and put your son at risk. Finally, do not confront the bully’s parents. In most cases, bullies are learning their behavior at home, so chances are they’ll either blow you off, tell you it’s no big deal, or, possibly even threaten you.

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