Zero Tolerance

So-called “zero tolerance” school policies have proven controversial, since they are most often characterized by mandatory responses to student misbehaviour, applied in a non-discretionary manner, regardless of circumstance. Zero tolerance policies are often judged as punitive, rigid and impersonal, therefore unfair and consequently, ineffective.

We know that an attitude of non-tolerance for bullying is an essential element of any school policy against bullying. It is crucial for schools to communicate such an attitude to students and to translate it into constructive action. To be effective, however, it is essential that the consequences for bullying behaviour – and other forms of violence – be perceived by students to be fair, logical and appropriate to each situation, as well as equitable and consistent. This perception contributes to the creation of a safe, strong and free school culture.

In June 2007, the Government of Ontario introduced the Education Amendment Act (Progressive Discipline and School Safety) 2007. These changes to the safe schools provisions of the Education Act support a progressive discipline approach, enabling schools to choose the appropriate course of action in the case of inappropriate behaviour. Importantly, the changes in the legislation do not lower the tolerance the school system has for inappropriate behaviour.

The practical application of a fair policy of non-tolerance for bullying and other forms of violence can be complex, much like the problem of violence itself. While all forms of violence are linked, each is also unique in certain ways, with distinct dynamics. The elements that characterize bullying are:

  • an imbalance of power
  • an intent to harm
  • worsens with repetition over time
  • the distress of the person who is bullied, often including fear or terror
  • an enjoyment of these effects on the student who is bullied by the person (people) who bullies
  • the threat – implicit or explicit – of further aggression

The presence or absence of any one of these elements would be an important factor to consider in determining an appropriate response to a specific situation. To illustrate, each of the following situations would require a specific response adapted to the event and students involved:

1. Bullying: Almost every day after school, a student who is very popular bullies another student. He seems to take great pleasure and to enjoy himself as he calls the second student names, while the other students laugh. He always ends by beating up the boy while others watch. The student who has been bullied spends his day in terror, knowing what to expect at the end of the day.

2. Bystanders: Among the students who observe this situation, there are some who watch and do or say nothing; some who withdraw, and who look unhappy and anxious; some who laugh and are obviously enjoying seeing the boy who is bullied suffer; some who help the student who is doing the bullying by calling out insults, or by themselves hitting the boy who has been bullied.

3. Self-defence: One day after school, the boy who has been bullied is surrounded by students who watch, as usual, while his tormentor makes fun of him. He knows the routine, established for months. He knows that he’ll soon be beaten up. In desperation, when cornered by the student who is bullying him, he punches that boy, then runs away from the situation.

4. Revenge: The boy who has been bullied can’t take it anymore. One day, while on his way to school, he encounters the student who has been bullying him for months. Furious, and pushed past his limits by the torture and the rejection he has been enduring at school, he explodes and punches this student repeatedly. Then he runs away.

And lastly, a completely different kind of situation:

5. Conflict leading to assault between two peers: Two students are in the same class. Both are confident and popular with the other students in the class. A competition develops between them; each tries to be more popular than the other, and to draw the attention of their classmates. One day after school, one of the students goes after the other, and starts insulting him. The other student responds by shouting insults back. The first student punches the second. The aggression escalates, until a fistfight develops.

It is important that consequences and sanctions be applied consistently and appropriately in all cases of bullying and violence. Responding effectively to these diverse situations raises a number of challenges and requires many resources and a great deal of creativity. The search for interventions that are both fair and effective may require planning and consultation. Ideally, procedures that flow from the school’s Code of Conduct and bullying prevention policy will ensure enough flexibility and support so that adults can exercise their judgment and discretion in each situation.

Transforming a bullying situation into a learning opportunity can take a great deal of effort, communication and interaction between the adult and the students who are involved. However, the active and respectful involvement of adults in the social life of students is one of the best deterrents to bullying.

In her book, The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander, Barbara Coloroso offers the following story as an example of a school’s successful response to a bullying situation:

...a student drew up a list of his tormentors on the back of a class handout. Parents of some of the students on the list insisted that the principal do something. Principal Frans Weits did what they demanded, but not in the way they expected. She ordered an investigation. Students were asked what they had done to their classmate that would merit getting their name on his list. She then called to account everyone involved in the incident – bullies, henchmen, active supporters to disengaged onlookers, and the bullied boy who wrote the list. The principal was quoted in the local newspaper: “In light of what’s happened in neighbouring districts, San Marcos High now has a zero-tolerance policy toward bullying. And everyone – faculty, staff, students and parents – is on notice that students will be held accountable for everything from verbal harassment to physical aggression” (San Diego Tribune, April 14, 2001).

Bullying is cruelty. Reducing bullying requires a change of heart – on the part of the student who bullies, as well as those who encourage, tolerate or support the bullying. This can be accomplished by creating a school environment in which the peer group is collectively acting to discourage cruelty towards others, and to support and defend those targeted for bullying.

To win students over to the cause of helping create such large-scale change, it is crucial that they perceive the discipline in the school as fair, logical and appropriate. This is only possible when school policies and procedures take into consideration the specific dynamics involved in bullying situations.