Why Zero-Tolerance Policies Make Bullying Worse

As I hear from educators and parents about bullying, many of them tell me that schools need to do better by focusing their efforts on "common sense strategies" like Zero Tolerance Policies in their anti-bullying programs which encourage students to report all incidents.  They seem certain that the only way that we can stop the bullies is to "teach them a lesson" by punishing them for their bad behavior.  Surely this will improve the education system, right?

To date, millions of dollars have been spent on anti-bullying programs that teach students to report each and every bullying incident that they see on their campus to the authorities because their school is a "bully-free zone".  The question is, "Have these programs worked?"  Sadly, the answer is no.  A recent study by the University of Arlington in Texas shows that these anti-bullying programs have actually made the problem worse.

Unfortunately research and the U.S. Department of Education have shared that one of the worst things that schools can do is establish a Zero Tolerance policy.  It may seem like common sense.  While these policies are all too "common" they simply don't make sense.  


Zero Tolerance Policies...

  • Create a policy around the lie that adults can maintain a "no-bully" environment. Our schools can become much better but they will never be perfect. We will always have haters because you can't force people to be nice. Aristotle proved that "Government cannot enforce morality".
  • Position principals and teachers as the enforcers, taking a legalistic approach rather than a psychological approach to solving social conflict.
  • Treat acts of bullying as crimes rather than a negative use of freedom of speech.
  • Result in consequences that do not fit the act (i.e. a student suspended from school for simply calling someone an idiot.
  • Create the expectation that it's the job of authority figures to solve student's social problems.
  • Pins parents and school staff against each other as parents hold teachers and administrators responsible for the behavior of other students (which they only have the power to influence, not control). 
  • Causes students to decrease reporting.
  • Drives bullying behavior underground and often online creating new problems with cyberbullying.
  • Punishes those that bully which is proven to increase their feelings of victimization and perpetuate negative behavior. 
  • Fail to equip or empower the victim but rather tries to control the environment around the victim by stopping the "bully".

Trying to eliminate bullies from our schools and society as a whole is a futile task.  The reality is that our students must learn how to respond to people that are difficult, hateful, and hurtful in order to be successful in life.  While bullying can be very frustrating for students it also presents an opportunity to learn important social skills and build resilience.

My free video training for parents and educators, school assembly program teaches students proven social skills that empower them to solve their own social problems.  The result is that students grow in the areas of self-esteem, self-worth, and self-confidence.

* Information in this article are based on research from the U.S. Department of Education, www.stopbullying.gov, and the University of Arlington.