Friday, July 22, 2016

Bullying and ‘zero tolerance’

Cartoon illustration: Adults direct types of bullying toward Cynthia Parkhill's Bitstrips avatar. A woman stares at her from around the corner. One man talks behind his hand to a listener, who has a shocked look on his face. A woman with a disbelieving expression looks at her computer while a woman in the desk next to her looks over. The caption reads, "Bullying survivor: What I imagine is happening."
Cartoon image created with Bitstrips
A keyword search on the phrase “zero tolerance,” performed July 22, 2016, returned 14 usages in reference to bullying among writings on my blog.

These 14 usages encompassed writings from 2007 to 2012, in which I expressed my thoughts and concerns as a survivor of childhood bullying that included taunting, physical violence and school-wide social exclusion.

In 6Rs of Bullying Prevention (Michele Borba, Ed.D, Free Spirit Publishing, August 2016), “Zero tolerance” is denoted as a policy toward bullying “in which harsh punishments are immediately enacted, such as school suspension or even expulsion, in hopes of setting an example for students” (location 3506 in a digital advance reading copy).

I wish to clarify that my usage of “zero tolerance” was not intended to call for harsh punishments, but was rather meant in the words of this sentiment that also comes from Borba’s book: “Bullying should never be dismissed or taken lightly, and kids who bully need to be held accountable” (location 3518).

“Zero tolerance,” for me, embodied school policies that took bullying seriously, that confronted toxic beliefs that victims “bring it on themselves,” or that bullying is a “normal” part of childhood.

A “zero tolerance” school climate would hold bullies’ actions accountable, give support to their targets and would mobilize onlookers to withhold from bullies, any passive approval of their behavior.

To achieve “zero tolerance,” sometimes a school might need to examine its own practices and consider the messages they send (for example, activities and rallies that demonize rival schools’ teams).

The entire school community must unite to combat bullying, and “zero tolerance,” for me, encompassed complete buy-in by all stakeholders.

I also wanted to be on record as “for” instead of “against” something. Being “for” zero tolerance meant actively working to create a better reality, instead of working to tear something down without building anything better in its place.

But words matter, and the phrase “zero tolerance” is imbued with specific meaning in the education community. As a result, I need to clarify my position and, going forward, find a new way to say it.

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