General Education

Zero Tolerance Bullying Policies Aren’t Working: Here’s a Better Solution

Zero Tolerance Bullying Policies Aren’t Working: Here’s a Better Solution
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Molly Pennington, PhD profile
Molly Pennington, PhD November 20, 2014

Teachers and educators open up about the bullying policies they’ve found to be most successful in their classrooms.

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Susan teaches first grade at a public elementary school in Pennsylvania, and she takes a two-sided approach to bullying. “All of these kiddos need positive reinforcement and understanding,” she says, “both the kids who it’s happening to, and also the ones who are bullying.”

She explains that kids who bully usually have something going on at home or some other factor that contributes to the behavior. Likewise, the children who get bullied may not have the support they need to develop confidence, making it difficult for them to report and respond effectively when bullying happens.

It has to be a “community effort,” she says. Susan describes her students as having personalities and morals that are being shaped and molded: “We teach them about bullying, but they’re also learning the right ways to behave in a group situation, in a school community.”

Susan is an advocate of positive reinforcement and intervention, and for compassion on both sides. “The bullies need help, too,” she argues. “Everyone needs positive reinforcement,” Susan continues, “from parents and teachers, yes, but also from the larger community.”

Bullying is common in schools, but surprisingly still difficult to detect. Part of the reason that bullying is hard for teachers and administrators to curb is because it often goes unreported. A student may be reluctant to come forward because she fears further harassment or humiliation once the acts against her become public. Or, she may not even realize that what’s happening to her is wrong.

Students who witness the abuse may feel the same confusion. They may not know which acts constitute bullying or what can be done. The bully may also be in the dark about her own behavior.

What is a zero tolerance bullying policy?

Zero tolerance bullying policies became widespread in the 1990s and 2000s as a way to use harsh punishment to deter bullying. By the late 1990s, 79 percent of schools nationwide had some form of a zero tolerance policy in effect.

Consequences were severe, and purportedly doled out equally. The same punishment, usually suspension or expulsion, would be used for every offense, including bullying, violence, carrying or concealing weapons, and even wearing banned clothing. In recent years, researchers found that these policies were not always effective. Most times, there were no alternative education options in place for expelled students, and in many cases, the policies were enacted unfairly, disproportionately targeting minorities, students with disabilities, or those from low-income backgrounds.

In some zero tolerance communities, elementary school students were expelled for bringing toy weapons to school. However, the strongest case against zero tolerance policy is that it hasn’t stopped bullying. The practice persists despite the implementation of these approaches in many schools.

So what is the best way to prevent bullying?

A growing number of school officials advocate prevention and education programs in tandem with zero tolerance policies. Greg, a career educator, who worked as the dean of students at a charter school in Pennsylvania, remarks that “bullying took a huge turn for the worse once cell phones became the norm because now a lot of bullying happens in secret.”

Administrators, teachers, and parents are confronted with trying to prevent bullying that is often invisible to adults. Though most states now have laws or policies to address cyber bullying, it is tough to police.

Greg served on several committees on bullying that used a zero tolerance policy. In his experience, the best measure of prevention occurred through education and early intervention programs.

What is the early intervention model?

In her paper about early intervention programs, Ginette Roberge explains that in these models, which vary from school to school, policies focus on education, “positive” discipline, and creating a “culture of respect and understanding” through “character education” and “social skills training.” She continues by stating that such policies also recommend examining the underlying causes of the bullying and finding outcomes that focus on both the bully and the victim. These models often focus on solving the problem and “mending the harm” the bullying has caused.

Greg explains, “I recommend doing education programs often, one a month, if possible. You will reach kids who may not even know they are being bullied. Kids need to understand what bullying is.” In Greg’s experience, frequent school-wide assemblies bring about an environment in which groups of students will stand up for others. “They embrace the community effort. They band together with a ‘we won’t tolerate this’ attitude,” he says.

But Greg also emphasizes that one of the most crucial factors in bullying prevention lies with adults. He clarifies that for bullying policies to work, “there has to be at least one adult in every child’s life that they trust. Kids have to have someone they can open up to.”

Experts recommend that one way to prevent bullying is to openly talk with your child for at least 15 minutes a day.

What are some common alternatives to zero tolerance policies?

One of the most widely adopted and successful alternatives to zero tolerance policies is the Dan Olweus method, in which all students participate in a school-wide prevention program, and identifiable bullies are provided with specialized intervention. The program also advocates parental involvement and prevention at home. Many schools utilize some form of these methods. Research suggests that these types of programs result in a 50 percent reduction in bullying and a “significant improvement” in the larger social climate of the school.

Bullying is still a huge problem in most schools, “and it always has been,” Susan offers. But she has similar advice as the policies and programs that are known to work: “Listen to your children. Acknowledge how they feel. Let them know that you understand they are hurt, then help them develop confidence so they can speak up when they know something isn’t right.” That advice works for students on both sides of the issue.

If you are looking for ways to teach your child to be a responsible bystander if she witnesses a classmate being bullied, read our article 10 Ways to Teach Your Child to Be An Upstander


5 Ways to Help Your Child Prevent Bullying this School Year. (n.d.). Retrieved November 11, 2014 from The U.S. Department of Education

Boccanfuso, C., Kuhfeld, M., & Trends, I. (2011). Multiple responses, promising results evidence-based, nonpunitive alternatives to zero tolerance. Retrieved November 1, 2014 from National Education Association.

Phillips, R. (2010, October 6). Toy gun leads to Florida boy’s expulsion. Retrieved November 11, 2014 from CNN

Roberge, G. (2012). From Zero Tolerance to Early Intervention: The Evolution of School Anti-bullying Policy. Retrieved November 1, 2014, from North Arizona University

U.S. Education Department Releases Analysis of State Bullying Laws and Policies. (2011, December 6). Retrieved November 11, 2014 from U.S. Department of Education


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