School Bully: Zero Tolerance Discipline Teaches Youth Intolerance

Published on Dignity In Schools (
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.


Our Youth Don’t Need Bootstraps, They Need Us

by Ernest Saadiq Morris

Upon reading Yvette Carnell’s recent column, “Low Black Male Graduation Rates Indicate a Failure in Faith, Not Circumstances,” I found it hard to believe the author was suggesting that young Black Males, a term she inexplicably says is devoid of love, merely need an attitude adjustment and self-love to achieve in the classroom and meet their full potential in life. This ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ admonition rings hollow.

Certainly true self-esteem and confidence are positive attributes, but Black youth face a particularly grim daily reality that threatens their healthy development from their first step inside the public school system. The Black male achievement deficit is only a symptom of interrelated factors conspiring against them, including but not limited to, widespread disenfranchisement of the right to equal educational opportunity, limited job opportunity and disproportionate contact with the criminal justice system.

A recent Schott Foundation report, 50 State Report on Black Males and Education, showed the Black male graduation rate is woeful nationwide, less than fifty percent. The latest U.S. Labor Department figures show Black teens have the highest unemployment rate of any group, 40.6 percent. Meanwhile, young Black males have disproportionate contact with the juvenile justice and adult criminal justice systems at a higher rate than all other groups.

Nationwide, K-12 public schools have become dramatically institutionalized with students treated as commodities and their value increasingly measured only by statistics, i.e., test scores. The aim and purpose of school policies overwhelmingly is discipline and conformity, not growth and social development. Youth who do not produce under this oppressive, industrial education approach are eliminated, i.e., either marginalized and removed from general education track to isolated and ineffective special education programs or they are literally removed from school by suspension and expulsion under severe discipline policies. Often special education is just a weigh station before ultimate removal by zero tolerance school discipline policies. Black youth face dual disproportionate rates of special education assignments and school discipline removals, including referrals to the court system. They are literally banished from ‘good society’ and deemed worthless at a young age. Is it any wonder that their educational experience is widely described as a school-to-prison pipeline?

The promoters of these oppressive methods employ numerous myths to disguise and justify their systematic disenfranchisement of Black youth. The ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ was one such myth promoted by former President Bush in justifying the No Child Left Behind Act, which introduced high stakes testing and ‘teaching to the test’ as the new millennium definition of learning and curriculum. But we cannot afford to buy into these myths or give any credence whatsoever to the idea that our youth deserve the inhumane treatment they receive from the increasingly tandem education and criminal justice systems. As adults, we should do better than blaming our youth, even those labeled troubled or wayward, and we should save the ‘No excuses’ mantra for those seeking to destroy our younger generations. And their pending destruction should be cause for community-wide intervention because it threatens to destroy the fabric of our communities.

Certainly, personal responsibility and self-sufficiency are important character traits to be learned and can breed success but no child should be expected to have the savvy to self-negotiate the deliberate landmines set throughout our public educational system. To point the finger at our youth in the face of these facts is an abandonment of our responsibilities as community members. There isn’t a bootstrap long enough for an entire generation of Black youth to save themselves from this systematic oppression; they need a lifeline with multiple hands of concerned elders pulling them to safety.

Now, what are we going to do about it?

As a community, accept that special education is not a diagnosis and it shouldn’t be a curse. Demand that school districts test youth to specifically identify the special need, instead of general catch-alls, such as learning or emotionally disabled. Then demand the school district provide services to meet the special needs for all children, not just children of higher income families.

Instead of only focusing on the achievement gap, demand accountability from school boards for any racial disparity in special education assignments and disciplinary removals by demanding school district statistics, then filing complaints with state and federal education agencies to document the disparity. It is illegal to use segregated special education programs to warehouse ‘troubled’ youth away from the general education curriculum, as is any unjustified over-representation of minority youth.

Demand the use of culturally relevant practices in the assessment of students for special needs, as well as discipline. We are all equal stakeholders in public education, so there should not be any cultural bias in educational decision-making.

An oppressive reality is what Black youth face everyday, but admonishing our young Black males to have faith and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps is overly simplistic, and actually absolves and promotes the further disenfranchisement of their right to equal educational opportunity. Before our communities suffer the dire consequences of a lost generation, I think it is time we work to protect our Black youth, and all youth, from a broken educational system, instead of blaming them for it.

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.