Published on Dignity In Schools (http://www.dignityinschools.org)
by Ernest Saadiq Morris
Bullying is a long ignored and persistent problem in American schools. Bullying can have devastating consequences no matter the victim’s sexual orientation, race, ethnicity or gender, however, it took a recent pandemic of tragic suicides by gay teen bullying victims to finally bring sufficient media attention and public pressure on education officials to dismantle the culture of bullying in schools. As education officials scrambled to respond to the outcry for stronger anti-bullying laws and school policies, the Obama administration recently issued a “Dear Colleague” letter of guidance clarifying how school officials are responsible for countering instances of bullying within their schools.
But the institutional responsibility to prevent bullying is not a breakthrough concept; rather school officials have just been delinquent in their duties and responsibilities. School officials often fail to competently address bullying and allow it to escalate by ignoring the warning signs within the school community. Too often, lackluster and negligent institutional oversight has left school bullies and their victims on their own to either “work it out” or in the continuum of worst case scenarios, “deal with it” through avoidance, submission or retaliatory violence. The public demand for accountability is understandable but calling for a one-size-fits-all zero tolerance punishment that never addresses the underlying issues within the school community is misguided and easily exploited by education officials to justify the zero tolerance school discipline that already exists nationwide, rather than adopting specific anti-bullying methods.
Zero tolerance discipline policies were the status quo in U.S. public schools long before the recent wave of teen suicides. Zero tolerance policies were initially justified as a necessary post-Columbine law enforcement approach to school public safety, but were soon expanded into general enforcement of student behavior compliance. However, these policies are not effective in preventing bullying, because their purpose is not to prevent youth misbehavior by creating a safe school environment but rather to punish youth after a violation has already been committed. Zero tolerance does not employ tangible anti-bullying methodology, rather it only addresses bullying after the fact by the institutionalized practice of forced compliance through fear and retaliation, i.e., bullying. By acting as zero tolerance bullies, school officials contribute to bullying culture by teaching students that there is no compassion or second chances for those judged outside the norm. This teaches youth intolerance of all nonconformity, whether it is based on behavior, culture or group identity.
Furthermore, bullying is often more complicated than the public is led to believe by simplified media coverage. The public perception of bullying is warped and dominated by a few well-publicized tragic events that support the idea that it is simply the strong picking on the weak and vulnerable, this could not be further from the truth. Bullying is often a symptom of multi-layered divisions within a school community between its proverbial haves and have-nots. Many urban schools face internal tension and conflict between individuals and groups based on the economic pressures and competition for lack of resources within their school or surrounding neighborhoods. Likewise, the expansion of zero tolerance discipline created a far bigger crisis than had previously existed from occasional school violence. As evidenced by the recent Southern Poverty Law Center report, Suspended Education, the stigmatizing and pushing out of record numbers of youth –particularly, youth of color– through zero tolerance suspensions and expulsions overwhelmingly based on infractions wholly unrelated to horrific bullying incidents or the general safety of the school community (i.e., tardiness, minor classroom misbehavior and dress code rules) is indeed an epidemic in our nation’s schools. This widespread disenfranchisement of the right to equal educational opportunity of youth of color is undoubtedly a factor in many urban schools contributing to the festering intolerant environment that is a precursor to a bullying environment.
A shift to restorative justice can transform the negative culture of zero tolerance discipline from one of intolerance and forced compliance by fear to a responsible education goal of productive behavior within a tolerant community. Restorative justice seeks to actually resolve conflict by teaching youth that they are responsible for making the victim whole. By teaching skills to resolve conflict, restorative justice can transform the negative dynamic between individuals and with time the community to which they belong, as more U.S. school districts are discovering. Public education can fulfill its traditional social mission of producing responsible community members by teaching responsibility and accountability for personal behavior and allowing for learned positive behavior within the school community, instead of forced behavior compliance from fear of negative consequences only.
Zero tolerance discipline does not fundamentally change behavior and it does not transform negative school culture to positive. A school community rightfully concerned about bullying cannot settle for the zero tolerance status quo, offered as mere window dressing, that requires no effort from school officials already delinquent in their institutional anti-bullying responsibility. Education officials should not be allowed to use recent bullying tragedies as a shield to continue their own zero tolerance bullying in the name of a corporate-industrial education model that separates the weakest youth from the herd, stigmatizes them, and casts them aside. It is time for a cultural shift in our schools to an environment of tolerance and accountability for youth and educators alike. We must use this ideal window of opportunity to urge school districts to transform the negative zero (in)tolerance culture permeating our schools with restorative justice principles to foster a new culture of tolerance and community-building –with educational and cultural equality for all.
* Ernest Saadiq Morris is a youth rights advocate, civil rights & liberties lawyer, and founding director of the public education and advocacy initiative, Urban Youth Justice. You can follow Urban Youth Justice daily on Facebook and Twitter.