Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right: Why Zero-Tolerance is Not the Solution to Bullying

What responsibility do policymakers have to respond to the bullying and harassment of students in school?
How can schools better meet the needs of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) students?
How can we ensure that schools are safe spaces for all students?

Fortunately, following a long, ignoble history of systemic failures to address the bullying and harassment of students, particularly LGBTQ students, these questions are now being considered far more than ever before. It seems that many lawmakers have been sensitized to the harms caused by bullying, harassment, and hostile school climates, and have responded with an unprecedented surge in policy and legislative activity. While the need to address this deeply harmful school behavior is undoubtedly urgent, the unfortunate trend has been to respond to bullying and harassment by referring so-called “bullies” to the police or using other harsh, “zero-tolerance” disciplinary measures that exclude students from school.

This policy trend is remarkably similar to what happened as concerns over school safety escalated in the 1990s and early 2000s, particularly after high-profile school shootings like the one at Columbine High School. The response in many schools throughout the country was to rely more heavily on law enforcement agencies and the use of zero-tolerance measures. As has been well-documented, these policies and practices have failed to produce safer or more effective schools, but have produced a variety of other harmful outcomes, including:

  • Unnecessary use of school-based arrests and juvenile court citations
  • Overuse and misuse of out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, and transfers to alternative disciplinary schools/programs;
  • Excessive use of metal detectors, surveillance cameras, Tasers, and other aggressive security measures; and
  • Overly-aggressive school security and law enforcement officials.

This dangerous cocktail of policies and practices – often called the “School-to-Prison Pipeline” – has led to huge numbers of students being “pushed out” of school and criminalized across the country. The effects have been so devastating for these students, their families, and en re communities that numerous community-led efforts to dismantle the Pipeline and end the overly-harsh discipline of students have sprung up across the country within the last several years.

Nevertheless, the same policies are now being widely used in response to the growing national concern over bullying. While there is no question that student-on-student harassment that goes unaddressed is a grave threat to the well-being of many youth, the threat posed to students by the over-reliance on police and zero-tolerance measures is just as great. Indeed, they share many of the same outcomes. Both produce severe psychological, emotional, and academic trauma in their victims. Both create hostile, alienating school environments that affect other students and staff alike. Both have drama c systemic effects, including worsening academic achievement and decreasing graduation rates. Indeed, the often-devastating impact of bullying is strikingly similar to the harm caused by the mistreatment, harassment, and even violence suffered by students as a result of the many excessively harsh school disciplinary policies and practices currently in use throughout the country.

Thus, while the efforts to punish bullying harshly and even address it criminally are well-intentioned, they are nevertheless misguided (with some limited exceptions in that they reinforce the School-to-Prison Pipeline and the excessive involvement of law enforcement in the lives of students. The zero-tolerance approach simply will not solve the grave problem of bullying and harassment of students, but it will cause substantial additional harm, including for the very students it is intended to protect.10 All young people, both LGBTQ and non-LGBTQ, will suffer if we fail to see that the zero-tolerance approach is a form of bullying, not a solution to it. All students should feel safe, supported, and protected from violence, bullying, and mistreatment, whether it is from other students, the adults charged with educating them, or broader institutional forces.