Zero Tolerance

By Gabrielle. Image by my favorite childhood artist, Norman Rockwell.

Oh my goodness. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate all the feedback and kind words you’ve shared in response to my 2014 plans. I have devoured every comment and am looking forward to responding to more of them. I truly, truly appreciate the support and thank you from the bottom of my heart. And now, on to a sort-of opposite topic: The word “bullying” is on my mind.

I feel like it gets thrown around like crazy lately — and in some instances I find myself confused about how it applies. In an attempt to keep children safe from bullying (a worthy goal and one I fully support!), many schools have instituted a zero tolerance policy toward bullying and bad behavior. Does your school have one? Even if it doesn’t, I’m guessing you’ve heard this term once or twice, right? It is likely written in your school handbook in a bold font, mentioned often during PTA meetings and Back to School nights, and it has possibly even accompanied a few not-so-subtle warnings before your kids got on the school bus!

After reading this editorial about some US school districts reconsidering the concept, I couldn’t wait to hear your thoughts. Since our return from France, I’ve really noticed the leaning in the US to act quickly and harshly when bullying or bad behavior is even remotely glimpsed. It seems like there’s not a lot of discussion or wiggle room or parent persuasion when it comes to breaking the rules — written or implied — in school. My initial instinct, is that I’m totally fine with that…I think! Because so far, we’ve not been directly touched by the policy. (Let me repeat: So far! I have six children, Friends! And there’s always tomorrow!)

Then again, an acquaintance recently told me about her experience with zero tolerance. Her son attends an international school and was recently suspended for a day because another student reported him for bullying. She asked the Head of School to define bullying in this specific case, and was assured that her son hadn’t done anything of consequence. Rather, the complaint had to do with an uncomfortable feeling the other boy felt whenever he spoke to her son, likening it to a queasy stomach! After a long silence, the mother suggested that her son now had a queasy stomach, too. From speaking to the Head of School!

As comical as this situation sounds, I’m sure it was super frustrating for all involved. I can tell you my response would not have been as reasonable or calm as my friend’s was — I think I would have freaked out if my child was suspended for vague reasons!

I’d love to hear how zero tolerance makes itself known in your school experiences. Do you see it as too stringent? Too black and white? Or have you seen it work well to keep negative school behavior in check? Also, I’m curious to know if your school attempts to define bullying as part of their zero tolerance policy — I’m guessing different schools have widely different definitions.

P.S. — I asked Ralph and Maude what bullying was like at their high school here in Oakland — specifically about whether or not homosexual kids felt like they could be safely and openly gay. They both answered that they didn’t see bullying against gay kids at all, and that any kind of mocking of homosexuals would be completely shut down by students at their school. I was glad to hear it! Sounds like progress to me.

106 thoughts on “Zero Tolerance”

  1. Pingback: Zero Tolerance | Jerbelle Lau

  2. A boy did nothing of consequence and was still suspended for the day…just to make another student and his mother feel better? My goodness, stuff like this is hard to believe, but at the same time it doesn’t surprise me. I wondered where the good stories are about American schools, and then I got to the bottom of the post. Wonderful that Ralph and Maude reported such a great attitude toward gay students at their school! *That* is something I love to hear, since it certainly wasn’t like that when I was in high school :)

  3. In my opinion, I think it is all black and white here, with very little common sense. I will just tell my story. My son is in second grade, and this was the last year. One day he cut the line on the bus, because he wanted to be next to his best friend. Three other kids got mad, started teasing him and calling him “line cutter”. Emotional as he is, he started crying. These three had to go to the principal office and missed their recess that day.
    When my son came from school and told me a story, my first reaction was” Don’t cut the line next time”. Remember, I am not an American and where I grew up kids were brutal. But, I have learned some valuable life lessons.
    Next day, these three wrote the apology letters and draw the pictures of my son cutting the line, etc. It was pretty comical. And I think it was a bit over the top. Let the kids be kids and work it out among themselves. Well, I am not talking about serious bullying. I am just saying about every day kids’ interactions.

    1. I completely agree. In every day, normal interactions, the kids need to work it out themselves. That’s how they learn. The situation you described has nothing to do with bullying. It’s simply a couple of boys feeling like your son wasn’t being fair, that’s all. Bullying is when a child or a group of children constantly harass and tease another child or group of children. Bullying is constant and consistent. I think definition is where there is confusion.

  4. Our middle school had to do an additional two hours of education on the subject of bullying after every minor disagreement on the playground turned into an accusation of kids being bullies. At the rate they were going, half the school would have been suspended.

    1. Oh man. I can totally imagine that! Every little infraction turning into cries of bullying. I’ll bet your school is not the only one that has had to address this.

  5. The zero tolerance policy creates stunted emotional awareness. In general I found that the “true” emotional bullies tended to accuse everyone else of bullying and teachers and administration are at a loss of how to navigate it. I prefer schools who focus on peace and how to bring resolution to conflict. The definition of bully is so murky. As a school counselor I had one of the teachers model how to resolve conflict over what they called a “peace flower”. It was amazing to see how children solved things more quickly than adults.

    1. Indeed – the real bullies have learned how to manipulate the system and accuse others to their own advantage. I’ve seen that done.

  6. I had some of the same thoughts upon returning to US public schools last year, after being at international schools outside the US for a number of years.

    I think it is excellent that bullying has come to the attention of society and that it is being addressed in many ways. It is a serious issue. Often those being bullied still do not speak up.

    I do think sometimes that actions can be considered irritating, rather than bullying. My daughter often says she is being bullied, when I believe it is more being irritated by another student. I have tried to explain the difference and give her avenues to deal with the irritating person. I think this is a life skill she will need as bullying and irritation goes on in almost any work place.

    Both of my children have been bullied (interestingly enough in international schools). The schools were able to address the concerns.

    Good topic. The issue of bullying and irritation cause me to think about my own actions with others and how I might come off to them.


  7. On the opposite end of the spectrum I would like to share our family’s story. My son was bullied (in the true sense of the word) by a group of 12 boys when he was in 4th grade. I knew something was wrong but couldn’t quite put my finger on his change in behavior. The situation came to light finally when two adults (a teacher and a playground aid) witnessed the bullying. Which consisted that day of grabbing my son by his sweatshirt hood and pulling it back to choke him and then onto the ground where he then had dirt shoved in his mouth and down his pants. It came out that this despicable behavior had been going on for over a month. Even though the school had a zero tolerance policy I was told by the assistant principal that “they would keep an eye on the situation”. There were no suspensions as per the school policy handbook that each parent had to sign at the beginning of the year. I was not happy and the asst. principal suggested I talk to the parents. So I did. Six of the parents took responsibility for their children and surprise, six took the “Not my child” stance. Although my son was allowed to stay with his teacher during recess for safety a day came that she was absent and the sub sent him to the playground under protest. That day one of the “not my child” boys pulled a knife on our son. Per the handbook this was grounds for expulsion. He received just 3 days of suspension. I on the other hand pulled my son out of school and a few months later we sold our home and moved to a different school district. Two years later we do not regret our decision. My son is an honors student and well on his way to earning the rank of Eagle Scout. My only hope is that those 6 boys whose parents did not intervene can find the right path in life.

      1. What an awful situation for you son! It makes me so sad to hear these stories. I completely agree, this is the true definition of bullying. Your previous school did not do it’s job effectively. The two things that shock me most are that the teachers didn’t notice the bullying for a full month (!) and that the Assistant Principal told you to address the situation with the parents. That is the Principals’ job, not yours. That puts you and the other parents in a very uncomfortable position. The whole thing was handled very poorly.

        I’m happy to hear your son is thriving at his new school. Good for you finding a better school district with an environment that better suits your son.

    1. Laura,
      Thank goodness for good parents (you) when no one else is willing to do their job. And I also admire your forgiving attitude. Heaven forbid any parent should be in the position you were in, but you were so decisive and proactive in defense of your son. Thank you for sharing your story.

  8. One of our school counselors visited a parent group meeting I was attending to talk about bullying and said that our district considers bullying to be ongoing, aggressive behavior intended to harm another person mentally or physically. The key word being ongoing.

    I subbed in the elementary school office one day and got to see our principal handle a situation where a child was getting picked on repeatedly by another. He brought the two boys into his office, had a brief talk, and then let the child who was being picked on decide what to do with the other kid. The boy decided to show mercy and give the other boy another chance. I thought it was a great way to right a power imbalance!

  9. While true bullying needs to be addressed , guarded against, etc, I’m frustrated. My instinct is that parents have made unkind behavior synonymous with bullying and I see the two as distinct. Granted, if my kid were being treated unkindly, I’d have trouble being rational, but I think we’re hurting the bullying cause and we’re not allowing kids the opportunity to settle their own disputes.

    Last year my daughter (9 yo) was the perpetrator. It was behavior so unlike her. On the one hand I was glad the school nipped it in the bud, but I think another approach would have been more effective.

  10. The school that my two boys attend has a zero policy towards bullying. They had a school wide program and class discussions to let the students know what it all meant. I’m sure it has worked to help some students who were suffering. However, after speaking with lots of parents, kids are taking advantage of the program and accusing fellow students of bullying just to get them in trouble. Something that could easily be worked out between kids is turning into a mark on your school record and even suspension. There has to be a middle ground for it to really work.

  11. When it comes to guns or real knives at school I am 100% on board with the zero tolerance policy. However, I think beyond that it has gotten way out of hand! Children are no longer allowed to make normal childhood mistakes without having adult level consequences for them. Unfortunately the consequences are falling especially hard on our boys in the USA. The occasional shoving match, playing pretend war games, and non viciously poking fun at your friends every now and then is a part of growing up! Twenty years ago my brother was always getting calls home from the teacher about minor infractions like these, which my parents dealt with in appropriate ways. My brother turned out great in the end (despite a few exploding soda bottles and the occasional potato cannon in our back yard) and is now an investment banker with a wife and two kids. However, if my brother had grown up today he likely would have been regularly suspended for his typical boyish behavior and who knows what would have become of him! I feel like the rules of our schools today are completely unreasonable when it comes to the harsh punishment of students who just make simple childhood mistakes. How can you possibly expect constant perfect behavior from children!? We need to have a much more reasonable system of discipline that actually looks at and evaluates the problem behavior before handing out severe punishment. Zero tolerance simply does not get the job done.

    1. Great comment, I completely agree! Ongoing viscous behavior may require intervention, but not harmless, normal kid stuff.

    2. I think you’re right that the brunt of this tends to fall on boys. But I think that also opens up a discussion into the larger issue of how we “market” to boys. A walk through any toy aisles (or quick glance at many tv show aimed at boys) reveals a vast percentage are violence/gun based. As my mom often said, kids are going to pretend to play “gun games” whether you hand them a water gun or they find a stick. And I find that to be absolutely true. But the number of my son’s friends who are playing Call of Duty and other war games that they should not even be aware of? It’s appalling. I place responsibility back on the parents here to treat boys as multilayer creatures capable of empathy and compassion, not just little soldiers. It’s the opposite end of Princess Culture.

      My son enjoyed a fine afternoon inside missing recess with nearly every other boy in Kindergarten and first grade after a teacher busted them playing Star Wars. Can I tell you (as a girl) HOW often we played Star Wars at recess back in, ahem, the 80’s? Almost every day for a year. Not a single one of us has tried to be Bo Bo Fett in real life. Balance. We need balance.

  12. I am all for zero tolerance but I think we should stop at the ridiculousness of things like a six year old kissing another child’s check and getting labeled as a sex offender. A simple we don’t do that at school would have probably done. Its seems to me the “little” things are being addressed in a “big” way but the “big” things are not being addressed at all, or at the most in a “little” slap on the wrist kind of way. In my own experience one of my sons was bullied for an entire year by a boy who would trip him, push him into lockers, incidents that left bruises. I was at the school constantly and nothing was ever done. All I got was his parents don’t answer the phone. Fast forward, a year later my son now a good 6 inches taller and ten pounds heavier was blocked by same bully in the hall and simply picked him up and moved him to the side, didn’t shove or push, (there were witnesses) and said “leave me alone”. My phone rang it was the assistant principal, waxing poetic about her “zero tolerance” policy and how my son would have an in school suspension and so on and on when she stopped to take a breath I said why because I answered the phone? Aside to say I was a presence at the school volunteering she knew me, and my child and was going to make an example of him because she could. The other boys family didn’t answer the phone was not really true the other boys family were mean drug using bullies too and the school was afraid of them. I know my son shouldn’t have put his hands on the other boy, but the unfairness of the situation was beyond my level of patience. I told the assistant principle that if she needed to give my son an in school suspension it was well with in her rights to do so in regards to the “zero tolerance” policy but that I would be joining him and bringing all my documentation of the incidents of the previous year AND would also be inviting the local press to join me. Needless to say my son was given a “second chance” often times I wish he wasn’t though so the inequality of my particular city’s zero policy would have been publicly scrutinized. I live in a very diverse and rough neighborhood and the bullies are multi-generational as is the drug use in many families.

  13. At it’s best, I think “zero tolerance” is meant to not only be strict, but can prevent favoritism and personal connections between parents and administrators from influencing consequences. I fear that more often it prevents true problem solving or accountability, and lacks sensibility. I’m probably on the more protective end of the parenting spectrum, and I’m glad that bullying, for example, is taken seriously at our school. But I don’t think that it is the best discipline policy for elementary or middle school children.

  14. I have a hard time with this topic. I’m a high school teacher and a mom of three. I happen to teach in an all-girls’ high school, even throw we do have co-ed classes with the boys’ school. Anyway, as a teacher, sometimes the bullying term makes me roll my eyes. I hear it from girls often. Girls tend to more emotional and I feel like what they sometimes call bullying is just typical girl drama. Sometimes I worry we’ve handed them this hot-button term that they can throw down at a moment’s notice in order to get immediate attention, rather than teaching them how to deal with relationships in a mature way. I like the commenter who said it is defined as on-going, I think that’s more accurate.
    However, as a mom, my tough shell falls off a little and I get protective of my own kids. I definitely have a zero tolerance policy in my home. My oldest likes to pick on his younger brother for kicks. Yes, I know this is typical sibling behavior, but I draw a line when I see him throwing his weight around or enjoying upsetting his brother for the heck of it.
    So, in conclusion, I think we definitely have to help them learn respect for others and nip bullying in the bud whenever possible. However, I also think we need to take situations case-by-case and hear all sides and give reasonable consequences in schools. The reality is that some kids want attention and some kids pull the wool over their parents’ eyes. Some kids, like many adults, like to play the victim. Please don’t misunderstand me, though. Bullying is real and must be eliminated. Just not every type of bad behavior is real bullying.

  15. I’ve not read the other comments nor has my daughter (thus far) been involved in bullying either as a victim or an instigator. I realize this may make my perspective different on this than those whose children have been more immediately affected.

    I applaud what I will assume is the spirit behind most ‘zero tolerance’ policies – the desire to create an inclusive, accepting environment where everyone feels comfortable, welcome, and safe allowing teachers and students to focus on learning.

    I recognize that true bullying is a very serious issue and needs to be handled appropriately and swiftly. Zero tolerance policies seem to create a much wider umbrella under which to fit a range of behaviors – some of which are actually bullying and some of which aren’t.

    That feels more like an easy-out way to deal with difficult situations akin to using a sledgehammer in place of a flyswatter. Rather than allow for a nuanced approach to each situation that could take into account all the actors as well as the deep understanding teachers and administrators may have about the issue, policies like this apply a one-size-fits-all approach. I’m not sure that’s the best way to teach our children how to successfully and realistically solve problems in the future.

    1. It really does seem like nuance is missing from these policies. Yet we know that when we’re dealing with human beings, one-size-fits-all policies never actually work.

  16. Around 11 years ago, a new principal took over our elementary school, and implemented the daily affirmation. I rolled my eyes. But what happened that year won me over. The affirmation ended with the line that the school was a peaceful and caring place to be, and that is what it became. That’s not to say that incidents didn’t happen, but when they did, they were addressed fairly and consistently. Unfortunately, that principal left a few years later, and the successor was slowly undermining the work that had been done, but thankfully a new principal took over this year, and I see it heading back in the right direction. Sadly, it’s my last child’s final year in this school, but it has been a great experience for us.

    I also think bullying gets used way too much, not just in schools, but on the internet. Anytime someone disagrees, someone is quick to accuse them of bullying. It’s trickling down to our kids.

      1. I can’t find the actual affirmation, and I keep forgetting to ask my son, but the key components are: “The affirmation emphasizes the importance of addressing others with respect and kindness; solving problems in a peaceful way; focusing on learning and doing one’s best; and being proud as an individual, as well as a member of the group.” This is a quote from the DOE description of the school, and those are similar to the words that are used in the school.

        I’m going to add…the first principal and the current principal do something that I think is key to all of this. They know the kids. The get out into the school and see what’s going on, not just live in their office and meetings.

  17. My daughter just transitioned out of, and my son still attends, a Montessori charter school, preschool through 8th grade. As you can imagine, they’re very conflict-resolution oriented and I like that. They emphasize ‘respect yourself, respect others, respect property and environment’ and it all comes into play in terms of being a good community member. They have a graduated system of working it out in the classroom, parent involvement, and Director involvement. I definitely prefer this to a black and white zero tolerance policy, though over the years I have seen different interpretations by the teachers as to what constitutes a need to step in. I have also seen different reactions from parents. Some are appalled that their kids were involved and they follow up at home, some have thought the school overreacted to “kids being kids.” So, one downside to vague policies is disagreement over interpretation.

  18. Bullying is the worst! I was bullied for my hobbies in school, and then for my last name when I married. I’m much stronger and stand up for myself now, but I still can’t believe it when adults (!) are the cause of much discomfort to others, including children, around them. Zero tolerance is a great concept, but I feel that school’s should also include empathy or understanding to those who bully. Many of those bullies don’t understand the person they are hurting, so they act out in unkind ways. There is a musical group, Time for Three, who is working hard to make bullying noticed and to help kids to find themselves in the chaos of growing up.!stronger/c255h

    You should look into their ‘Stronger’ project! – so inspiring.

  19. My daughter just introduced me to your BLOG site. I am a high school teacher teaching computer/technology courses. I just introduced my students to BLOGs and showed them your site.

  20. My kids are in kindergarten and first grade. They have been shown short films on bullying and it is a much talked about subject in their public elementary school. It has almost made them hypersensitive to it. Kids are kids and I believe bullying to be an ongoing behavior. Now whenever a classmate says something to my daughter that she doesn’t like, she will say she got bullied. I know that that was not the case.
    I understand the theory of zero tolerance but am also an advocate that life is not black and white but shades of gray. My friend’s son was verbally bullied in the second grade. It was ongoing behavior but never witnessed by a teacher. After 3 months of harassment every school day the boy punched the bully in the face. The zero tolerance policy dictated that the “puncher” be suspended. This is a case where zero tolerance clearly failed.

  21. I teach at a middle school and bullying happens without a doubt. But as many others have said above, often the does who do the bullying have bully parents who attack the character of anyone who stands up to them and their mean child, and have gone over the teacher and even principals heads to the superintendent and then no one wants to stand their ground. Its ridiculous, and it teaches their kids they can get away with bad behavior. Schools are so afraid of being labeled a bully school, or of being a school that ignores it, everyone is running scared.

    1. As a former middle school and high school teacher, I saw this all the time. Even when I stood my ground as a teacher, if a district supervisor didn’t back me up, not much mattered. And even if I suspect someone of being a bully, I can’t ignore teaching the 25-30 other kids in my class to monitor someone’s behavior non-stop. So moms, maybe ease off “the school’s not doing it’s job.” We are human, most of us are trying, and we can’t be all things to all students all the time. Ideally, we just get to teach but we’ve turned into de facto parents for a lot of our students and it’s just not possible to witness/anticipate/prevent every episode especially at the secondary level.

      We have a cultural problem that manifests itself in our schools. If we want to eradicate bullying, it starts at home.

      1. I love reading the comments from those of you who are working in the schools right now and are having to deal with this stuff daily. Your perspectives are so valuable!

  22. Are you familiar with Mary Gordon and the Roots of Empathy? Mary Gordon has successfully reduced bullying cases in over 13000 schools by over 50%, and after nearly 5 years, sustained and/or improved these results in every school she has worked in. She is truly an AMAZING woman. Mary found that in most cases, bullies (those with ongoing targeted mal-intent towards another) literally did not understand empathy. She found that empathy is a skill to be taught and set out to do it. She brings together every reported bully into one classroom and works with them to learn empathy. She brings a baby into the classroom and begins teaching the children how to learn to read facial expressions, learn to see emotion through body movements, etc. Her work is truly fascinating. I wish more of our schools focused on skill building rather than merely punishment. Carrots and sticks alone are such weak sources of influence. You should check out her work –

      1. Just checked out that website, and that is one of the coolest most inspired ideas I have ever heard of, it is amazingly brilliant. I am bummed they aren’t in Chicago because I would have signed up for instructor training tonight. Thanks so much for sharing that….

    1. Jo, I read all the comments on this post yesterday, and yours I kept turning over in my head the most. I had no idea empathy was a learned skill! That’s a concept that is a game changer for me — and makes me eager to learn more about Mary Gordon’s work. Thank you for the link. I’m hoping to make time to read more this evening. Wouldn’t it be amazing if an effective program like this became widespread?

      1. The Roots of Empathy program is at our (Oscar & Betty’s) school. Definitely 5th grade, but maybe 4th grade too. I have heard nothing but raves about it.
        We’re also hosting a workshop in February called Everybody’s School that will deals with family, gender & racial diversity and bullying. Hope you can make it!
        -Michele (Graham’s mom)

  23. When my son was in Kindergarten he and another boy were playing Star Wars during recess . My son was pretending to be Hans Solo, the other boy Luke Skywalker. Well . . . as you know, Hans Solo carries (and uses!) a gun.
    A girl told her teacher that my son was pretending to shoot someone. And it’s true – he was. Because the school has a “zero tolerance” policy, my son was suspended the following day. He was pretending to shoot, and it made someone uncomfortable. Done deal. Not tolerated. Removed from school.
    I was simultaneously amused, irritated, sympathetic, concerned, perplexed, and frustrated – yet understanding of the schools stance.

    1. It boggles me though – what is happening to childhood? The innocence of playing cops and robbers? My 5 year old was suspended for pretending to be Hans Solo!

  24. My children attend an International Baccalaureate accredited school that follows Olweus, which is a specific anti-bullying curriculum. I am on board with this program as it’s not vague in the least. And it’s very common-sense based. When bullying happens and fits the criteria, it is dealt with in an age appropriate and case sensitive way. There are no sweeping one-size-fits-all solutions.

    On the other hand, I think that Bully Behavior is learned. What I have witnessed by parents on playgrounds is appalling. Perhaps it’s the parent’s that need the curriculum more than the young children in hopes that there would be a trickle down effect.

  25. I’m afraid bullying has become such a hot topic and catch phrase these days it is losing meaning. Many of the reported “incidents” of bullying at my kids school are not bullying. It’s just kids learning to navigate social situations/behavior. And unfortunately I think our schools as well as many parents are feeding the fire.* My son is only in 1st grade but the amount of anti-bullying literature/work that has come home is immense. And of course, now every incident becomes “they bullied me!” As we are working hard as parents to raise independent, strong, empathetic and thinking children it’s a constant effort to re-educate our kids. “No, I’m sorry, that’s not bullying. XFriend was picking on you. How did you handle it? What could you have done better?” And of course encouraging our kids that if it goes beyond something they feel confident to handle, to ask for help without whining/trying to get the other kid in trouble (have the behavior cease, but also find a peaceable resolution). We’ve also worked to establish when THEY should step in to help others: If they do notice one student being repeatedly picked on or harassed by another student. If someone is being physically hurt. Etc. It’s a long road. My son stopped wanting to go to school last year. We finally determined one kid (one he counts as one of his “best” friends) was actively excluding my son from his group of sports-oriented recess friends. We talked about how it made him feel and what he could do (walk away, find his other non-sporty friends to play with, get the ball first and tell that kid he couldn’t play that day, etc). A few recesses (and playing with his other friends) later the other kid figured out he held no power over my son and the storm blew over. It also made my son quick to notice others who were being excluded and he now goes out of his way to include them. A lesson I hope he’ll remember throughout his life…

    I believe schools have the best of intentions at heart, but as with anything involving the human race, it’s a complex and complicated issue and no one-size-fits-all solution is going to solve it.

    *I’m sure I’m going to open up a can of worms here, but I’m going to say it anyway. Part of me wonders if some of the increase in issues come from the increase in stay-at-home helicopter parents. I am NOT saying bullying is not serious or that it never existed before. Nor am I trying to point my fingers at the SAHP community. Bullies come from ALL walks of life. However, the kids my own kids have had the most trouble with are the kids who stayed home with mom or dad for the first 5 years of their life and who were not introduced to social situations on a regular basis. These kids are just learning what my kids learned a long time ago in daycare: life is not all about you, it’s not always fair, you’re going to have to share, and you’re not always going to like the way things go. That is a tough lesson to learn and the later you learn it, the harder it is. And I see the reactions from these kids falling on both ends of the spectrum (either the constant cry of “He bullied me!” or being the aggressor.) I applaud families that have the ability and desire to have a parent stay home with their kids. I applaud even more those who search out the opportunity to socialize their kids. As much as we may not like it, Kindergarten (and even pre-school) is not what it was when we were kids.

    1. “Many of the reported “incidents” of bullying at my kids school are not bullying. It’s just kids learning to navigate social situations/behavior. ”

      Nicely stated! I agree. It would be great if we could gather more examples of policies that better navigate the difference between learning healthy social skills and actual bullying.

    2. I WAS with you until your last paragraph. Nearly everyone knows that kids of a SAHP are more often better behaved! My mother-in-law worked in childcare at a ski resort for 25+ years and could tell within minutes if kids usually stayed home with Mom or Dad, Had a Nanny, or went to Daycare, all by their behavior toward the adults and other children. Are there exceptions to every rule? Of course. But that was just nonsense.
      ABCNEWS 4/19 “A 10-year, 10-city federal study found that 4 ½-year-olds who spent the most time in day care away from their parents were more likely to be aggressive and exhibit behavioral problems when they got to kindergarten.”
      Chicago Tribune 4/25/2001 “One of those studies, sponsored by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), found that children who spend more than 30 hours a week in day care at an early age tend to be more aggressive, especially toward their peers.”

  26. This is such a such a hot topic right now! I know that it is benefitting some but I think that there are HUGE gaps. Our experience was that my very outgoing, well-liked son and a few of his friends were being bullied on the playground during recess by a group of girls. The girls would even go so far to physically grab, hold, and hit them as well as verbally taunt them. I brought it to the teacher’s attention several times and it wasn’t addressed and got worse to the point my son begged to stay home each day. At this same school his classmate was sent to the office & mom called because he was playing army men at recess. For all of the awareness I think that it is so inconsistent! and bullying is still happening!

  27. When we were touring public kindergartens in San Francisco 5 years ago, there was always a parent asking the principal about the school’s policy toward bullying. Nearly every principal said there was a no-tolerance policy except one, and her answer struck me as the right one: She said (and I paraphrase) that teachers and parents need to understand what is happening in the bully’s life in order to get him or her to stop…that punishment just drives the behavior underground… and that bullying is a symptom that needs addressing (as opposed to a bully being a bad kid who simply needs to be suspended or expelled).

  28. i was bullied in school, so this topic is very near to my heart. i was bullied by my classmates when i was 13 or 14 (my country’s version of junior high) by kids i had gone to school with and had known for six or seven years prior to the bullying. it never got physical, only verbal, with a few prank phone calls and once or twice someone scribbled on my jacket when they were sitting behind me. i was annoyed by the bullies’ immaturity, but because i had the right kind of support from my parents (who taught me to be myself, be a good person and mind my own business and not care what other people think) it did not ruin my life or cause me emotional trauma, and it never got to the principal or the school psychologist, nor did my parents talk to the other kids’ parents about it. i tried to take it in my stride and after about a year it was time to start high school. i was thrilled to get to move on to another school with new classmates and never got bullied after that. just a couple years later, i would run into my old bullies in the street and they acted like nothing had ever happened, like they had never hated me/picked on me. some of them even apologized for the bullying, saying they were sorry and they realized how stupid it was.

    kids are kids, sometimes they’re mean, sometimes they succumb to peer pressure and imitate other kids even though their parents taught them better than that. the school is there to pinpoint who out of all those kids has an actual problem, and who is just going through a phase. there are so so many shades of grey. and also, if we always step in to protect our kids from other people, how are they ever going to learn to fend for themselves? personally, i would have been super embarrassed if every time someone picked on me they got suspended, and i probably wouldn’t have told my parents about it cause it would just make the other kids pick on me even more. and without their support it would have been much harder emotionally. i got through it without zero tolerance, and it only made me a stronger person. i kept my integrity and even the kids who bullied me grew up to respect me for it.

    that said, there should be zero tolerance for things like bringing weapons to school. the “queasy feeling” thing, however, is ridiculous. some kids get a queasy feeling before tests, does that mean tests should be abolished??

  29. The post and comments have been fascinating to read. I have a 3 year old and infant, and when I hear about true bullying stores, it always brings tears to my eyes. I start to wonder about what I would do if it were my kids. Gabby – more posts like this please!!!! :)

  30. I think “zero tolerance” is lazy on the part of administrators (no need to be thoughtful or watch for patterns) and, honestly, it seems to be developing as another form of bullying. Say a kid’s a bully before he says it about you! Slap that label on, never to be removed.

    And I think desiring a zero tolerance policy is lazy on the part of parents. Like MamaChilanga so wisely says, above, coming down hard on a true bully doesn’t fix the real problems. And like awesome jovana says, sometimes we, as parents, have to do a little leg work to make our kids tough, rather than handling them with kid gloves at home and expecting the world to do the same, forever.

    These are children. They are learning to test their boundaries and understand social structure. It seems completely ridiculous to label them (for their entire school career, it seems, sometimes for something as simple as grabbing a toy out of some other kid’s hand <<true story) for their first misstep.

    Our society wants a quick fix for everything. They rarely exist, and if there is one for bullying, this is surely not it.

  31. Having said that, when what I would call “true” bullying (be it physical, verbal or cyber) is happening and administrators/teachers/parents know about it and nothing is done, heads should roll.

    So maybe I think every school should have a “zero tolerance” policy toward administrators and, heaven help us all, coaches, turning a blind eye to real bullying.

  32. My son was being bullied in elementary school. He was pushed out of activities (physically) in the school yard, tripped and teased constantly for over a year. He had to leave the play ground and classroom in tears. He said nothing to me. The school however, was in talks with the parents of the child involved. There were detentions, meetings etc etc. But no one told me about it. I happened to hear about it because my son and the main instigator were on the same soccer team and a parent casually commented about all the trouble so & so was in because of his actions towards my son. What? I was shocked that the school did not share this important problem with me. My son has finally admitted what was going on, now in middle school and away from kids. It would have been helpful to have been advised up front to help him handle it better and to make decisions about my son’s safety.

    1. This is exactly what happened to my nephew (except high school & football, instead of elementary & soccer). Lots of parents of other kids knew, but of course my nephew was saying nothing and my sister had no idea. It’s a horrible feeling to find out something has been so wrong with your child and other adults knew and nobody said anything!

      Your example and my sister’s have really made me reconsider “minding my business.” It can be so hurtful. xox

  33. I’m with most of the commenters here: I think the Zero Tolerance policy some schools have adopted offers the easy way out and is another indication that common sense has been tossed out the window.

    Schools should have clear policies about behavior and ways of addressing those behaviors that cross the line. But some of the situations related above that were punished with suspension seem beyond ridiculous to me. I would rather see common sense policies and much more emphasis placed on teaching empathy and respect since many children today are lacking in these capacities.

  34. Bullying among girls is very real and can be very violent. Please read this article from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

    I don’t think most schools know how to handle bullying, at least not in my area. My middle daughter was bullied in middle school and her early high school years and the school would do nothing about it. Thankfully, it appears now in her junior year that the bullying has ended. Our neighbors took their son out of our public school for bullying.

    I am not in favor of a zero tolerance policy, but the schools have got to do a better job of working with the students and perhaps working on Emotional Intelligence with the bullies.

    The schools may be talking more about this, but I’d sure like their actions to match their words.

    The parents of the bullies are often of no help, and may even add to the bullying. Another girl in our community committed suicide a few years ago because of the bullying, which included a parent. She is mentioned in the article above (Megan Meier).

  35. I used to babysit a little boy who was fun and outgoing. While playing cat/dog in kindergarden, he accidentally scratched another child. This boy was severely reprimanded and suspended. It really affected his personality growing up and made him more guarded and not as carefree. While I certainly think in certain situations this rule is effective, I also think we need to use our heads!!!

  36. When I was a child I was a bully. I was a mean girl. I did not know that term back then. I was teased and left out and I in turn did the same to others. I think kids these days are not allowed to make mistakes and learn from them. I think they are too shallow emotionally that they fall apart at the TINIEST side ways glance from another kid. I do not agree that light teasing is bullying, but our schools have zero tolerance for this stuff. This is our fault, as parents. Why do our children crumble at the words of another student? Something as simple as, “You have a big nose”, makes children melt into puddles and run to mom and dad, who then run to the principal. Why aren’t we doing our jobs as parents? Is a Zero-Tolerance policy just a cover up for lazy parenting?

  37. Lets be honest, bullying takes place mostly when educators aren’t present. How do they have the right to determine with absolute certainty what happened and enforce a no judgment policy such as zero tolerance? Someone’s judgement must be trusted. Otherwise, the wrong party is often accused of bullying.

  38. I think bullying behaviours are like roaches. If you see one small roach, there are dozens more hiding in the walls. If you hear about one incident of your child being shoved, there are probably dozens more incidents they never tell you about and that teachers never see. I was bullied quite a bit as a child and I never told my parents or a teacher. I hid the tears, the notes, and washed off the evidence. Thank goodness my high school had a zero tolerance policy. After middle school, I was never scared in school again. The point of zero tolerance is to make it clear that certain behaviours are just not acceptable. Ever. Parents, peers, and teachers can be so quick to make excuses or justify their behaviour for a popular or athletic student. There are plenty of good people who make mistakes. If these mistakes aren’t caught early and consistently, other children will be unneccesarily hurt, and the perpetrator will never be given the opportunity to grow.

  39. My kids are in their 40’s so this is not an issue for me but I wonder what these sheltered little darlings will be able to handle in the real world of work and relationships.

  40. I am a first grade teacher at a Catholic school. This is very timely because my school just had an assembly on bullying today. I was taken aback when the presenter explained that basically any mean behavior was bullying – including talking while the teacher is giving a lesson and cutting in line in front of other kids. He talked about how kids might bully others because they are hurting inside. But, then he did a pre-arranged q&a with a teacher… “If I come to you and say I am bullying others, will I be in trouble?” “Yes” “Maybe will you even ask me not to come back to this school?” “Yes”… Very zero tolerence.

    At my last school (public) the administration was careful to emphasize that bullying must be a repeated act. Parents would sometimes say their child was “bullied” after one incident and they would disagree because true bullying is supposed to be prolonged and repeated behavior.

    It is just surprising to hear the difference in what kids are being taught.

  41. Our school has a zero tolerance policy, which includes no hitting for any reason whatsoever. All students are required to sign a written policy agreement, and all reported incidents go directly to the principal’s office. Sometimes this policy works, and sometimes it doesn’t. As most people know, kids who are true bullies are good at hiding their actions and the worst incidents often aren’t witnessed by teachers or staff.

    Our Kindergarten son was a transfer student and was sent to the principal’s office on his first day of school for violating this policy (which he wasn’t aware of). Turns out he witnessed 2 bigger 1st grade boys chase and then grab and hold a girl who was protesting. No playground supervisors were around, so our son ran over and knocked one of the bigger boys down and help the girl get away. He was so upset at getting in trouble, and was new to the school, so he didn’t inform the principal what had happened. However, he told me what had happened when I arrived to pick him up from school.

    When I heard the reason why he was in the principal’s office, I suppressed the urge to give him a high-5 right then and there (not for the behavior, but for wanting to help someone in need). Instead, I praised him for wanting to help someone and then we brainstormed about how else he could help. I then talked to the principal, the playground teacher, and my son’s teacher about who he can go to for help when he thinks someone is hurting someone else (including someone who is hurting him).

    This advice helped this year, when a bigger older child in our son’s class consistently elbowed him in line, shoved him around, and then made jokes about him getting hit by cars and dying. Rather than keeping it to himself, he informed me right away. I then approached the teacher and the other parents – all of whom were supportive and agreed that it was not appropriate behavior. Turns out these parents have had similar acts from their child and are trying very hard to steer him in the right direction (he was adopted at an older age from a foreign orphanage). A few weeks later the other child’s mid-year review included a personal goal about how to act more kindly to others.

    I think the very strict policy stems from having a high percentage of students who come from “rougher” families and who may not have a lot of instruction on how to work out conflicts in a positive manner. While the strict policy is not my favorite, I do see that the school is evolving. While kids still go to the principal if they hit someone, she is willing to figure out exactly what happened. And, the school has paired the policy with “Second Step” training on empathy, and how to express feelings without harming others.

    BTW, I LOVE the “Roots of Empathy” training. I did this with my son’s prior school’s K-2 classroom and our then newborn daughter, Annabelle. The toughest kids become amazingly kind and loving when Annabelle visited the classroom. It reminds me that I should look into inviting “Roots of Empathy” classes into our current school. :)

  42. Interesting timing with this topic! At a recent moms night out I found out a friend of my daughter’s had been suspended from school for a the THIRD GRADE! She isn’t in my daughter’s class this year so we missed the drama(which is good). The situation started with one girl writing a note/scribble on the friends school paper. The girl then wrote back and it when on for a bit. Of course the teacher caught on and took the paper. She uncovered a very extreme drawing with the words revenge, a violent doodle etc. from my daughter’s friend towards the other girl. This was then brought to the principle’s attention and resulted in the parents being called, suspension and indoor recess for a week. I was shocked to hear the whole story to say the least. I think a suspension in 3rd grade is extreme. I feel like she is too young to be really aware of the message she was sending, especially because her notes were done out of fun not anger. I think our children are exposed to violent drawings, message etc. everywhere and this is part of the problem. The whole situation really opened my eyes. I do think the girl needed to understand how wrong her actions were, but I also think we need to back up and take a good look at where they are getting the messages. I don’t know anything about Monster High Dolls (I could be off base using them as an example), but when things like that are the top selling toys it scares me! I know our world is a different word, we have seen school shootings carried out by trouble kids and I understand the sensitivity. I think we need to do a lot more work in this area and look at the messages we are sending our kids.

    1. The idea of suspension for young kids is also shocking to me. At what age do kids really understand their actions? I have no idea, but it seems like a third grader wouldn’t really have a full understanding of right from wrong yet.

  43. I, for one, and tired of hearing about bullying. And tolerance.
    Don’t get me wrong. I’m not in favor of bullying. But to say we “must be tolerant” sounds to me like “we all know the _____ is really ____, but we’re going to pretend we’re ok with it, even though we actually aren’t, and think they should change”
    I just think the world would be better off if we started applauding and encouraging KINDNESS. TO EVERYONE.

  44. Aaaand, another thing.
    What is “Reality TV” if not grown up bullying on display? American Idol? ???The Bachelor????? Survivor????
    And we wonder where this is coming from?????

  45. Gabrielle, I am not surprised that gay kids at your children’s school aren’t bullied. Being gay has become a very “cool” thing to be in our society. I think it’s great, by the way, that they aren’t bullied!

    I have very young children so the issue of bullying hasn’t come up, but I know my nephew has been bullied for being a virgin, not drinking, doing drugs, etc. It seems like the like the pendulum has swung the other way and it’s the kids with strong morals who are being bullied. (I’m not saying that gay kids don’t have strong morals as I’m sure many of them do!)

    I hope that instead of focusing on not bullying, schools will focus more on instilling strong values so that kids will understand the dignity and uniqueness of each person. My kids’ school has a virtue of the month which focuses them more on what to do instead of what not to do. I hope this makes sense!

    1. Hi Kristen,

      While I appreciate what you are trying to say (that it is unfortunate “good” kids are being treated poorly for making decisions to abstain from behaviors that are not age appropriate), I disagree with your observation that “being gay is cool.” I mean, maybe it is, but what I think is more likely happening is that “being open minded is cool.” Regardless of your personal beliefs/voting etc, I think the younger generation believes in being respectful of differences in belief. Race and sexual orientation seem to be the first wave, which I think makes sense given the abundance of mainstream media/discussion in those areas.

      1. Oh, and I should add that I’m not trying to say *you* aren’t respectful of differences in beliefs. :) You sound perfectly reasonable and lovely. Just wanted to call out a difference of opinion on why bullying might not be happening with gay kids in that age group in that geographic region.

  46. I love it when you use your platform to engage people in thinking, reading, and writing about this sort of thing. Thank you! I don’t believe “Zero Tolerance” is ever a good idea when it comes to kids and teaching behavior. I’ve had firsthand experience, though, with students who repeatedly demonstrated the same bad behaviors but were given the “kid gloves” treatment due to their race. In the long run, I think that mentality does more harm than good, but we may be headed toward more of it down the road:

  47. The subject of bullying came up for us in preschool. One day our 4-year old son came home from school upset and withdrawn. After a couple of days he confessed that he was no longer allowed to play or sit with his “best” friend at school. He wouldn’t (or couldn’t) talk about it beyond that. I assumed they were too rowdy together and the teacher separated them in an effort to keep a bit more order in the classroom.

    When I asked the teacher about it, we agreed to talk outside of class later in the day. She reassured me that it wasn’t a problem with my son but had something to do with the other family. I thought that was odd, but didn’t give it much thought because I knew the family was struggling with some of the boy’s challenging behaviors.

    Later that day I ran into the other boy’s mother when I went to pick up my son and in a friendly way (judgement and anger and empathy came later . . . ) asked if she knew what had happened. She answered by giving me a lashing, telling me how her son was scared of my son. How my son was aggressive and her son no longer felt safe at school. I was shocked. My son, like most active 4-year olds, did not always know where his body was in space and he was (and still is) very tall and physically mature for his age, and impulsive, etc. All age-appropriate issues, I think. I didn’t know what to say. I stammered something about being surprised and taken aback by her characterization of my son as aggressive because I had never seen him be aggressive (or do anything with the intent to harm) and that I would talk to him and their teacher about it.

    Later in the day I did just that. The teacher had witnessed the very incident that brought this on. The boys were playing on the playground one day, and my son stepped back and into the other boy while the other boy was spinning around a pole. The other boy fell down and had some sort of meltdown and started using all sorts of language about bullying. He eventually went home for the day because he was unable to calm and the parents reported the incident to the school. The school looked into it and determined that there was no aggression or bullying or wrong-doing from either kid, just a typical but unfortunate incident on the playground among 4-year olds.

    Later I found out that the other boy was on some sort of probation at the school and that he had been asked to leave his prior school for behavioral issues. I still wonder if this played into how this incident was portrayed by the other family. I hope not. The boy stayed at the school and struggled and was removed from the classroom almost every day. And, sadly it took a long time for my son to recover. It meant he could no longer play with at school or at home with a close friend and even though everyone tried to reassure him he still felt shame about it. And he never quite understood (and I don’t think the other boy did either) why he could no longer play with his friend.

  48. This calls to mind an incident when I was in fourth or fifth grade. I got suspended for a week for “fighting” with three boys in my class. The “fight” in question happened when the boys claimed that I had cut them in line (I very clearly had not), and instead of taking it to the teacher, two held me while the third punched me several times in the stomach. I kicked him between the legs. He screamed, and the teacher came running. I was the one who got suspended, even though I acted only in self-defense (and had the bruises on my arms and stomach to prove it).

    My parents withdrew me from the school the next day, and lodged formal complaints against the principal, the teacher, and the boys.

    While I don’t think that bullying of any kind should be tolerated, I think that the school system has become too sensitive. Not every sideways glance is sexual, and not every instance of kids rough housing is bullying/fighting.

  49. My daughter’s middle school (grades 6th – 8th) seems to have a very weird response system. A 6th grade boy shoved another 6th grade boy, of course he shoved back – they both ended up in dentention. Three 8th grade girls flipped a lunch table, with three other girls falling to the floor (one hitting her back on the table behind her) and being covered with food – no immediate consequences. The girls spent the rest of the day making fun of the girls who fell and also pushing tables into other children in the classroom. It took many outraged parental phone calls before anything was done.

    1. Ugh! So I’m guessing the school policy mentions something specific about pushing/shoving, but since it probably doesn’t mention something as specifc as turning over a table, they didn’t handle it as swiftly? Frustrating!

      And wonderful to hear the phone calls from parents made a difference.

      1. I found Elizabeth’s comments very interesting. When I was in junior high school (many years ago!) I got into a physical fight with another girl. The other girl was bullying another girl, and I got into a fight to protect the girl being bullied.

        A teacher took us to the assistant principal. His comment was, “I don’t believe girls would get into a physical fight, so I’m just going to give you detention for a few days after school.”

        Sounds like the sexist idea that girls don’t physically fight is still around. Unfortunately, many girls get physical and they need to receive the correct punishment.

        On the flip side, the boys suffer from sexist assumptions as well because it is assumed they are always more physically aggressive and therefore they suffer maximum punishment.

  50. What great comments and discussion above.

    For me, as a parent and a school board member, I feel that we are dropping the ball on not teaching emotional intelligence. Yes, there is real bullying happening in our schools. Regardless of the type of school or location. I believe the students and the staff need more help in identifying what true, hurtful and or dangerous bullying is and how to deal with it. We want children to grow up and to be able handle their emotions and to be prepared for the varied situations they will be in. The real world does not have a zero tolerance policy.

    More than ever we need our children to be responsible for their actions, to be held accountable by their peers and those in authority. But it needs to be done in such a way that we are providing everyone tools and skills to grow up to be good adults.

    More should be done here, but it needs to be more than what it is now and with a better understanding by staff, students and parents on what the expectation is.

    Keep this good conversation going.

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