Two things have become increasingly clear in the months since our reporting staff set out to explore the prevalence and consequences of bullying in schools and elsewhere.
The first, as you can read more about today in Part Three of our special report “Bullied to the Brink,” is that zero-tolerance policies are, at best, ineffective in all instances and are counterproductive for combating bullying.
The policies “mandate the application of predetermined consequences, most often severe and punitive in nature that are intended to be applied regardless of the gravity of behavior, mitigating circumstances or situational context,” wrote Narjis Hyder and Mariam Hussain in an article for the American Association of Educators.
The authors go on to argue such polices are ineffective or counterproductive.
There’s no surprise in that. However well-intentioned the policies were, and we’re not arguing their rise has been driven by good intentions, they are so fundamentally flawed that no good could have come from them.
Some of the criticism we found about zero-tolerance was about the bad application of such policies. There’s evidence, for example, that zero-tolerance policies tend to be more often applied to minority students. If that’s true, it’s wrong but it’s also beside the point, because the main problem with such polices lies much deeper.
The real problem with them is that by their very nature they remove the possibility of justice and proportional punishment by making every infraction the same and making victims of bullying who attempt to stand up for themselves as guilty as the bully.
There’s no way to fairly and equitably apply a policy that exists for the purpose of making what’s fair and equitable moot.
None of us would tolerate such polices applied in the world outside of school campuses — driving with an expired registration sticker treated as the same as driving drunk, for example.
By 1997, about 79 percent of school districts nationwide had some form of bullying zero tolerance policy, according to a report by Child Trends, a nonprofit research organization.
The stated rationale was that zero-tolerance policies would make schools safer. It’s hard to see how that was supposed to work and we suspect the real purpose was to give administrators a no-thought, no-fault method of dealing with infractions.
That’s not a criticism because we understand school administrators have been burdened with ever deepening layers of responsibility for things increasingly removed from the pure work of education. Who among them had time to also be investigators?
The age of zero-tolerance policies seems to be passing. They are, technically, not legal in Texas anymore, although they appear to still exist in practice.
The question now is what more effective methods will replace them. Future installments of the series will explore that question.
The second thing that has become clear is this: While Texas needs a law for dealing with cyberbullying, the one that recently passed the Senate strikes us as overly burdensome for school officials by requiring all sorts of cataloging, tracking and reporting.
Lawmakers should consider whether that’s really necessary and if it is, whether law enforcement, rather than schools, should be required to do it.
• Michael A. Smith