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. Great topic of discussion and something I’ve thought a lot about since we recently had a situation that made me wonder about the true definition of bullying. My 4th grader started a new school this year and was enjoying it at first but then started to complain about school and seemed upset when I’d pick him up. Long story short, thee was another boy trying to get other kids to NOT play with my son. And this boy also told the teacher my son was gloating about winning a game in PE, which of course prompted an email to me, asking that I discuss this behavior with my son. ( It sounded like his team was simply excited about winning, but we talked it over to make sure he was empathetic about the other teams feelings). All in all, it seemed like this boy really had focused on my son and of course, being new, I was especially concerned that this was hindering my son’s acceptance in the class. Fortunately the school has an amazing counselor who carefully assessed the situation , spoke with both boys separately and encouraged behaviors that could give them a chance to become friends. It was a great example of the kids both getting a chance to work it out before any extreme actions were taken. And luckily, things got better and my son now plays with this boy and is back to enjoying school. I don’t think it was bullying in this situation, but I do think it was headed in that direction. Kids can be mean and I think that is the challenge: to distinguish between kids just being mean and true bullying. Either way, the biggest focus for me is trying my best to support both my boys in handling life’s challenging situations. My hope is that they will come to me (or their dad) if there’s ever a bad situation . My 6th grader is pretty quiet and I wonder if he really would tell us if something was going on that bothered him. Ah-the never ending angst of the middle school years!

    1. I love your comment, Karen. I think sharing examples of difficult situations that have been resolved positively is so helpful. Glad to here your son is enjoying school again!

  2. I have four boys and in parenting them try to live by something my mom taught me….
    “Truth is to be embraced, rules are to be considered.”

  3. Gabby I love when you use DM to open up topics and discussions. I love hearing everyone’s points of view and stories! (well, i don’t LOVE hearing about bullying experiences….but it’s extremely interesting and fascinating).

    Bullying is such a powder keg of a topic. In it’s truest and most malicious sense, it’s so horrifying. Especially with older children who have social media at their fingertips.

    I agree with many of the commenters, it’s such a fine line and tricky to define. Having a ZERO TOLERANCE policy sounds good in theory, but isn’t realistic in practice. I think some schools use it more as a way of saying “We do not condone or tolerate bullying behavior” whereas as some schools literally mean, “Any infraction and your child is suspended.” We’ve managed to avoid straight up bullying mostly, but we had an incident that happened two years ago in second grade that was very tough on my son Wolfie. He was placed next to a girl who was notorious for being “mean”. (Ironically she is adorable looking….still has her baby fat and wears glasses….she looks as innocent as they come!) But one day my son and I were talking about his curly hair and I made a comment like “You’re hair is awesome, everyone loves your hair!” And suddenly the flood gates opened. “Not [S]. She says my hair is ugly. And that is smells. And that I smell. And that I’m ugly and my dog is stupid and that I’m stupid….” on and on. “When did she say this??” “Almost every day. And she said I’m a cry baby too. but I wasn’t crying she just made me so frustrated so I had to put my head down on my desk.” AHhhhh!!! Thankfully my child is pretty confident and while he was definitely upset, he didn’t let it get him down (he said she was “mean to everyone”). He just said it was very distracting and he couldn’t get his work done. I immediately had a chat with the teacher and had him moved (Wolfie is pretty sweet/kind, and she told me this girl is a bit of a problem and she thought my son would “rub off on her”. Argh.) I don’t think that kind of behavior is acceptable at all. It led to some great discussions with Wolfie. But then flash forward a month or so later. Same girl on the playground was playing kickball with my son. She claimed the ball was “out” and he claimed it wasn’t and she accused him of cheating and he (being a lil sensitive guy) did cry a bit. Another mother texted me saying that she was outraged that this girl made my son cry and we should talk to the principal….but honestly as much as I disliked this kid due to our previous experience with her, I had to say NO. That wasn’t right. This was just playground life./playground rules…and I thought it was important my child learn than you WILL have disagreements. People will frustrate you. And heck, maybe the ball actually WAS out. (Wolfie vehemently denied this haha). Anyway….it’s not black or white. I count myself fortunate that our instance was relatively minor. My heart goes out to all the commenters who have had serious instances of bullying… I definitely agree with those who said it really begins at home. We lead by example. Another excellent discussion Ms. G!

  4. First let me start off that I am not racist. I have lived in Africa, been to Asia, and around the world. I have friends from all backgrounds. Sadly, though I feel our school district is leans to protect the children of color more than those of non-color. Last year my son was being bullied/teased by a group of boys in his class who were of color. When he verbally responded to their repeated attacks, he was the one who was punished and expelled from school. When I called the adviser out on it she hung up the phone on me! I felt that they punished my son simple to protect themselves. While I don’t agree with my sons behavior, I felt that the boys who started it should have been punished too.

  5. How interesting that you bring up this topic! I know that there has been a shift away from zero tolerance policies for the exact reasons that many have discussed above.

    I couldn’t find the exact website I was looking for, but the Oakland Unified School District is just one place using a “restorative justice” angle on bullying and other serious incidents. I think it’s an admirable approach that benefits both individual students and school communities in the long term.

    “Punishments just alienate kids, and then teachers have to catch up. It’s top-down social control that doesn’t adjust for root causes. It doesn’t allow students to think about what they’ve done and be accountable or provide healing.”

    What’s tricky is that many schools are already stretched thin — taking this approach requires training, staff, and resources that many schools may not have. But I think it’s worth it! Student and community safety should be number one — if you’re not safe, you can’t learn.

    (That quote, and a short article on the OUSD work, can be found here:

  6. Absolutely zero-tolerance for bullying!
    The problem is what schools are defining as bullying. And how they want kids to respond. It gets ridiculous. I was talking to my 5th grader about what he would do if he witnessed real bullying. I encouraged him to stand up for the victim and he told me he couldn’t do that. That they were told to walk on by any incident, to not get involved. If they got involved they would be in trouble too. I told him no, you get involved and stand-up for the victim. Mom and Dad will stand up for you too. Simply ridiculous.

  7. I popped into my boys’ school today (in Colorado) for some volunteering and found my 3rd graders class watching and discussing a small video clip titled “Restorative Justice in Oakland Schools.” Having just read this post the day before I was very interested and thought it so timely. It was a great short clip about many of the things discussed here–looks like your schools are right on track!

  8. Hi Gabrielle – have you seen this implicit bias test before (specifically the social attitudes)?

    I feel like your older kids as well as your readers might enjoy it. Basically, it can help the test taker understand what sort of biases they carry towards different groups of people (race, gender, ethnicity etc) so that you can hopefully become more aware of them. Kind of related to bullying, but also related to being a good human.

  9. Pingback: Happy Weekend: Estella’s Weekly Roundup | Estella Blog

  10. I think some schools take zero tolerance too far. My oldest attended a K-8 school for kindergarten. During the first month of kindergarten a little boy told my son he was going to stab him with a knife. My son then repeated the threat back. They both received after school detention with kids from all grades. A month or so later something else happened (which I can’t even remember) and he once again received detention. In December he was in line going somewhere and some of the boys including him were shoving each other in fun and one of them fell. Because it was his third offense he was punished with a full day of in school suspension. A small child who couldn’t even read or write spent a day coloring worksheets in a room with middle-school age children who had also received suspension. What a huge waste. Instead of correcting him and teaching him proper behavior, he was banished to a room too young to even understand all in the name of zero tolerance policies. Plus he missed an entire day of learning.

    We moved out of state the next year. He has attended three other elementary schools and is now in middle school and we has never even had detention since. After watching my other four children go through kindergarten I have seen similar behavior and have seen teachers that have properly addressed and corrected the behavior in an age appropriate manner with much greater success than common sense-less zero tolerance policies.

  11. Such an important post – so glad you are addressing it – I recently viewed a video that deals with bullying – Beat a Bully without Using Your Fists – Beat a Bully Without Using Your Fists
    It is a whiteboard animation and is really well done, incorporating Bible principles. Take a look – I know you and your family will enjoy it.

  12. I don’t have a solid perspective, but many bullies I meet (young and old alike) are actually misguided leaders in disguise. Looking through to their true potential helps them re-identify their social power and use it for good. It’s surprising how a little more self-knowledge and empowerment will transform a person.

    I have to reflect more on the school environment, but I think one of my observations is that it’s difficult for any individual abilities to emit themselves productively. Such things often turn into “issues” and “problems” that are addressed by ineffective, sweeping policy changes that backfire. I suggests a more individualistic considerate approach, but it’s difficult for something like that to exist in our current institutional structure.

    Teachers and administration are asked to address social and emotional needs of children with little support. The building demands and the existing system are setup to counteract eachother, which causes higher tension on all involved.

    The victim-transgressor roles we’ve fit people in are really unhelpful. Everyone is able to do powerful things, no matter the circumstances. Individual spirit and choice and attitude can create beautiful moments in any situation.

    There has been extensive research on how societies function well, on how people learn, and what motivates people. The knowledge and information is available, and people like montessori have successfully put it into practice. I hope what we’re seeing now is evidence of the systems evolving to be more effective for everyone. It sure is a mess right now.

  13. Last year I got a call from the principle saying that my son, at the time 1o, was in trouble for telling another student that he was going to kill him. Then he went on to say that after talking to my son and his friend, his friend said they were playing and the other kid “stretched” the truth about what happened and said he was joking, but because he did tell, my son would still have to be punished. Because my son had never been in trouble at school and was a good kid, they only took away the next days recess. My husband went and talked to the principal the next day and he said that he hated to punish him but he had to because of “no tolerance”. All that to say, I don’t like it and common sense needs to be used.

  14. oswaldo borchert

    Nice suggestions – Just to add my thoughts , you want a IRS W-9 , my colleague filled out and faxed a blank document here

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top