Zero Tolerance = Zero Help

By Bethany Woolman

Originally published on Advocate.com June 01 2011 2:15 PM ET

You’re reading this, so I’m going to assume you probably already care about bullying. You don’t need me to tell you that almost 85% of LGBT students are verbally harassed at school or that 40% are physically harassed. You know in your bones that schools are not safe for LGBT kids today. So you also probably know that when it comes to stopping bullying, “zero tolerance” is everyone’s new catchphrase.  
 
Zero tolerance rhetoric is everywhere --— in our media, our laws, our politics. Show me a Glee enthusiast who didn’t feel for Kurt Hummel when he announced he was leaving his public high school to transfer to a school with a “zero tolerance, no-bullying policy.” Concerned parents everywhere are calling for zero Ttolerance antibullying bills to be introduced in their home states. And at the recent White House summit on bullying, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius asserted that zero tolerance antibullying policies in schools were “absolutely OK.”
 
So as a young queer woman who knows how damaging schoolyard homophobia can be, why am I concerned?
 
Contrary to popular belief, zero tolerance antibullying policies are bad for LGBT youth. These policies, while they sound great, don’t actually improve school safety and can end up doing more harm than good to LGBT kids and other vulnerable students. In education-speak, zero tolerance is code for automatic punishment. Schools have zero tolerance policies for a range of things: drugs, alcohol, fighting — the list goes on. Under these policies, students are usually suspended or expelled, no questions asked, for prohibited actions. Sometimes these policies mandate automatic involvement of the police.  
 
According to a task force of the American Psychologist Association, zero tolerance “has not been shown to improve school climate or school safety.” This is partly because under zero tolerance policies, school administrators become bureaucratically hog-tied. They lose the ability to treat kids as individuals, use their own best judgment, or consider extenuating circumstances.  
 
Abuses and misuses of zero tolerance policies are all too common. In 2009, the Supreme Court heard the case of a girl who was actually strip-searched under her school’s zero tolerance antidrug policy after being accused of carrying extra-strength Advil.  Last year in North Carolina, a star student was suspended for the entirety of her senior year because she brought a small paring knife to school to cut up an apple for lunch. These are not isolated incidents. Now, imagine the school officials who made these poor discipline decisions trying to deal with an LGBT kid who has lashed out against his bully in an act of self-defense. Would they have the capacity to address the situation with nuance and common sense?  

The surprising truth is that across the nation, too many LGBT kids are already being unfairly subjected to harsh discipline like suspension and expulsion.BULLYING SCHOOL KIDS CHILDREN X390 (PHOTOS.COM) | ADVOCATE.COMNew data from the American Academy of Pediatrics shows that nonheterosexual students are facing more severe discipline than their heterosexual peers. This unjust trend holds true for students of color as well. There is no evidence that students of color misbehave to a greater degree than white students. They are, however, punished more severely, often for behaviors that are less serious. Imagine, therefore, how damaging such disproportionate punishment must be for LGBT youth who are also of color.  
 
Take for example, the case of Carl Walker-Hoover. Carl was 11 years old when he committed suicide after enduring months of harassment from students who perceived him as gay. He was a Boy Scout who played three sports and loved school. But as the bullying continued, he became increasingly scared and hurt and started acting out in class. Though administrators met with Carl’s mom about his “behavior,” the bullying and harassment itself continued unaddressed. On the day he died, Carl came home very upset and convinced he was going to be suspended. He had accidentally knocked a TV stand over onto a girl at school, who then threatened to kill him.  His mother tried to comfort him, but a few hours later Carl was dead.  
 
Carl’s story isn’t simple. It would be convenient for me to argue that school staff failed to protect Carl because they didn’t care about homophobic harassment. Or that administrators were overly focused on his behavior problems because he was black. Or that Carl assumed he would be suspended because his school had extra-punitive discipline policies. But I never knew Carl or his family or his fellow students. The truth may be more complicated.
 
However, I think it’s fair to say that if Carl’s school had dealt with bullying and discipline differently, Carl might be alive today. If his school had had policies in place to prevent and address bullying in the first place, he may not have been so terrified to go to school. If Carl didn’t feel that the school’s only response to conflict, even accidental conflict, would be suspension, he might not have felt so much dread about his future.
 
Schools have tremendous power and responsibility to protect students from bullying and harassment. In California an antibullying bill called AB9 and nicknamed “Seth’s Law” recently passed through committee in the state assembly and is hopefully on its way to becoming law. Seth’s Law will help to shift the climate of public schools in the right direction and help educators receive professional development to teach them to deal with bullying effectively. Named for Seth Walsh, a young gay teenager who committed suicide last year, the bill illuminates a new way forward.  

Seth’s Law’s central idea is that to protect students, schools should take proactive steps to create a schoolwide culture of inclusion and respect for difference. First all schools should create strong and clear antiharassment policies and programs so that students know what kind of behavior is expected of them. There must be a clear reporting system in place to ensure that all reports of harassment are taken seriously and addressed quickly, and that parents and students understand the process of making these complaints. School leadership needs to explain the harmful impact of bullying to students and staff and then provide ongoing professional development for teachers, school counselors, and administrators so they have the skills to spot and stop bullying.
 
Once bullying has occurred, punishment alone isn’t the answer. School discipline should teach appropriate behavior and also help a student who bullies understand and take responsibility for the harm caused. Intervention and counseling should be available to both the bully and the victim to work to get at the heart of the issue.  
 
Am I saying that schools should ignore bullying? No. Am I saying that schools should “tolerate” the kind of homophobic and transphobic behavior that can send LGBT kids spiraling toward depression and suicide? No. In fact, all schools should have strong, robust policies to protect students from harm and create a community free of harassment.  
 
But zero tolerance policies, as they currently operate in schools, completely miss the mark. And they will continue to miss the mark until we reimagine what it means to protect students from bullying and harassment.