Why Zero-tolerance Policies Increase Bullying

November 2, 2014

The hours spent in the principal’s office, the in-school suspensions, and the occasional expulsion were all worth it. Rarely did a bully, after I chased, caught them, and beat them nigh unto oblivion, bully me again.


I was terribly bullied as a kid. I was socially awkward–still am–had fuzzy red hair, freckles, and at around the age of 7 became a bit of a chunk. Then I went through a growth spurt in 4th grade that made me taller than anyone else in my class. I had five older brothers and when the school rules changed to allow girls to wear trousers I wore my brothers’ hand-me-downs. I played like a boy, liked boy things such as snakes and lizards and bugs and playing Army. And I fought like a boy. So, there I was, the fiery red-haired tomboy who was bigger than most of the boys in elementary school, tougher than many, and always, always the socially inept misfit. But my story is different. Because I was the scrappy product of a scrappy, male-dominated family, I didn’t tolerate the bullying, I beat the tar out of bullies, boys and girls alike. Teachers often looked the other way when children would prod me and call me names, pull my hair, throw rocks or sticks, and challenge me to fights. I was on my own, left to my own devices to satisfy the raging sense of injustice my taunters ignited in me, so I fought back. And in retrospect, I did the right thing. The hours spent in the principal’s office, the in-school suspensions, and the occasional expulsion were all worth it. Rarely did a bully, after I chased, caught them, and beat them nigh unto oblivion, bully me again.

What seemed like Hell then is now a wistful thought, and I can smile at the dust ups of those days. Though bullying has always been a factor in human socialization, its modern implications are troubling, and too often, deadly. Although our culture, its schools and families, are trying to foster greater awareness of the nature of modern bullying, and seeking a healthy balance between natural consequences vs. retribution and protectiveness vs. coddling, it persists in schools, social media, and the workplace.


Social media is the ideal outlet for people known as Trolls, or Flamers, who relish the anonymous bullying opportunities the Internet presents. There is a population of isolated, possibly mentally ill people who troll websites, social media, and personal profiles looking  to demean random victims and spew hate. If you’ve encountered a troll or flamer you know they’re not interested in debate, they’re out to do harm. And there is little to stop Internet trolls other than blocking them when they surface. For the unsuspecting, lonely, or inexperienced, however, anonymous trolls can inflict stinging insults that can harm one’s sense of worth and make a body doubt their own beliefs.


Stories with tragic outcomes related to bullying of youngsters are becoming more prevalent. Children bullied to the point of despair have taken their own lives, feeling hopelessly trapped by aggressive peers at school. Many of these instances, however, have resulted from Internet bullying by known people on sites such as Facebook. The victims are often the targets of endless threads of cutting comments, cruel pictures and artwork, and remarks by bullies taunting the children, in some way, to end their lives because the world would be a better place without them.


Bullying is not limited to minors. Workplace, neighborhood, and sports bullies present challenges to adults as well as children. Workplace bullying includes but often goes beyond things like sexual harassment, or sadistic managers. Adults ordinarily are equipped with better interpersonal skills, and stronger self-regulation when dealing with bullies and using proper venues to report their abuses, than children. Nevertheless, there is often a sense that aggressors are becoming more aggressive and adult confrontations with bullies, more dangerous.


Remember the recollections of my childhood as a bullied kid who refused to be a victim? Despite the fact that I got in trouble with my school authorities, my parents and brothers, and the few children I called friends, stood by me when I fought back. I refused to be a victim, and an hour in the principal’s office was worth the justice I meted out to my cruel little tormentors. Zero-tolerance policies did not exist at the time, so bullied kids like me had a means of recourse. School and workplace zero-tolerance policies regarding “fighting,” “aggression,” and “violence,” have failed to decrease bullying, but have effectively tied the hands of potential victims, negating their ability to draw the proverbial lines in the sand, and defend their personal space and dignity.

Zero-tolerance policies on school violence and aggression fail to differentiate between bullies and victims of bullies. Because victimized children fear punishment equivalent to that of their tormentors, they will tolerate or try to ignore the abuse, at the cost of personal dignity, social relationships, and often mental health. School violence zero-tolerance policies have the opposite effect of what they’re designed to do. Instead of decreasing violence, they increase the aggression and boldness of bullies and gangs, leaving victims with few means of self-defense. Despair and anxiety related to bullying are much greater today than in past decades because the only tool that some children have to stake their claim on dignity and worth has been removed from them. Nobody likes to see children go at one  another, but sometimes fighting back the most effective deterrent to bullying, which is the domain of insecure, cowardly kids.


Internet bullying is indirect and often anonymous. It rarely occurs in real time, and bullies can scheme and lay traps outside of the view of victims who can be overwhelmed by complex webs of intrigue, and cruel comments targeting them on their social media pages. Youngsters seeking social acceptance will often use websites such as Facebook to make friends and form alliances they hope will carry over into daily life. If victimized, such kids may be reluctant to rebuff insults for fear of losing friends, or getting a reputation for being weak or oversensitive. The desire to maintain social media friends and followers may drive a young person to endure emotional torture. Insecure or lonely children are made even more vulnerable on social websites by the desire to not offend. This is why simply blocking people, or making reports–which is a common practice of adults–can be difficult for children, leaving them exposed to psychological pain and social rejection.

My brothers taught me how to fight, not because I wanted to but because I had to. The rule of thumb for human behavior is that people do what they can get away with, because they can get away with it. Bullying is a growing phenomenon because resistance to bullies, whether physical or emotional, is hampered by cultural impositions of “zero-tolerance” policies. The social seeking of isolated adolescents who turn to social networking also lends to anonymity and vitriol employed by bullies. As we are are all endowed with the God-given right to defend our persons by having a means of defense equal to a given threat, we need to teach our children that they have the God-given right to defend their persons and dignity with any appropriate means available. Personal and civil peace is not engendered by passivity because the worst elements of humanity, bullies, will always seek to dominate the weak. Peace is kept when force is confronted by strength and adults and children alike know they are free to fight back when necessary.

by Marjorie Haun  11/2/14

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