The myth of “zero tolerance”
It happened again. Not even two weeks after 11 year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover committed suicide after being the victim of anti-gay bullying at his school, a second boy the same age, Jaheem Herrera, ended his life under the same circumstances.
I don’t even want to get into my abject disappointment at the idea that, in 2009, calling someone a faggot is still the lowest form of humiliation young people inflict on each other. I don’t have enough air space here to rant about how we as parents still fail to avoid projecting our own fears and prejudice onto our children, and how we continue to teach them, either by example or by silence, that it’s acceptable to exclude and mock people we perceive as being “different” from us. It’s all been said before, and it doesn’t do as much good as it should. Now kids who are too young to understand what being gay actually means sure know that it’s hurtful to accuse someone of it.
What I want to talk about is a line from the article about Jaheem Herrera’s death: School officials won’t discuss allegations that bullying may have contributed to the boy’s suicide. You see this every time a kid kills him or herself after being victimized by bullies for an extended period of time, their school remains curiously silent on the matter. True, making a statement is a damned if you do/damned if you don’t prospect, in that claiming you didn’t know what was going on looks bad, but so does admitting you did and it still continued to happen. Silence speaks louder volumes, though, as it suggests that the school’s biggest concern is avoiding the inevitable lawsuit that will come out of it, rather than opening a dialogue about the continued problem of bullying.
In many schools bullying is handled by the genius concept of “zero tolerance,” which means that both bully and victim are disciplined equally. I’m not quite sure what that is meant to accomplish, other than it saves teachers and administrators time by not having to handle each situation on a case by case basis. It clearly doesn’t work, as bullying is still prevalent in most schools. Probably the biggest hindrance in improving the situation is the deeply ingrained notion pushed by both parents and educators alike that bullying, particularly between boys, is merely par for the course in childhood. “Boys will be boys” and all that. Boys are told to just suck it up and take it when someone insults them or puts their hands on them, because it teaches them how to be strong.
Ask anyone who was bullied as a child if they thought it was a positive experience. Ask them if they’re glad it happened because they learned something from it. You can recognize an adult who was picked on a lot as a kid quickly: just look for the most insecure person in the room who has had at least one prescription for anti-depressants in his or her past. Let me assure you that they’re not about to look up their bullies on Facebook so they can thank them for such a valuable lesson. As adults we’re not expected to just have to put up with a co-worker who pushes us around and creates a hostile environment, why should children have to?
We can try to reason that bullies do what they do because they have their own problems, maybe a bad home life, or perhaps they’re bullied themselves and are taking it out on someone they perceive as being weaker than them. But let’s be honest, most bullies are just mean little shitbags who are used to getting away with stuff, because either their parents spoil them or don’t care what they do, or teachers turn a blind eye. A zero tolerance policy teaches a bully nothing. Particularly when they get to be over the age of ten or so, and are certainly old enough to be held accountable for their behavior, they need to be taught that their behavior is unacceptable and will be treated accordingly. Shrugging off bullying as a “rite of passage,” or worse, ignoring it entirely, is lazy and irresponsible. School should be a safe place for children. Perhaps if Carl Walker-Hoover and Jaheem Herrera were able to feel like they were being heard and protected in their schools, they’d still be alive.