It is not unusual for schools and communities to adopt “zero tolerance” policies with regard to bullying. At first glance, a zero tolerance policy seems cut and dry…either a student engaged in unwanted, harmful behavior or he didn’t. Second, it seems to be easily enforceable because the punishment for negative behavior is neatly constructed…Bullying will result in a suspension from school. Repeated infractions of the anti-bullying code will result in expulsion. In reality, no current research has shown that zero tolerance policies are effective, and, in fact, quite the opposite may be true. The excessive use of suspension and expulsion for bullying behavior may lead to greater incidence of misconduct down the road.
When students are suspended or expelled they run a greater risk than their peers of dropping out of school entirely. And they lose the opportunity to learn from educators and from the targets of their aggression about how they have hurt others. Additionally, when students are no longer enmeshed in a learning environment, they lose valuable opportunities to develop social/emotional intelligence.
The Peace Center suggests several alternative forms of discipline that have proven to be successful in a wide range of circumstances.
1. Peer mediation We must analyze each conflict to determine whether or not peer mediation is an advisable strategy. Conflict doesn’t necessarily involve bullying. While peer mediation is often helpful in resolving conflicts between two young people who perceive themselves to be equally powerful, when bullying enters the mix, an imbalance of power exists and peer mediation is not advised. Putting the target and the aggressor in a room together to “talk it out” often results in re-victimization of the target.
The staff at the Bully Prevention Resource Center has trained hundreds of youth to act as mediators when conflict occurs. These children, from elementary and middle school, participate in activities that teach empathy, respect for oneself and others, and conflict resolution skills. They learn how to ask open-ended questions, to be nonjudgmental, and to work with the young people in conflict toward peacefully resolving their differences and making positive behavior changes.
In bully situations, however we advise that a trusted, neutral adult choose from a few well-tested techniques.
2. Restorative Justice Restorative justice is a process that involves the target, the offender, and anyone in the community who has suffered fallout from the conflict. A trained facilitator makes sure that everyone gets to tell their story. The system thus focuses on the individual needs of both the aggressor and the target. Targets take an active role in the process, while aggressors are held accountable for their actions, but not punished in conventional negative ways. Aggressors and targets may agree that an apology is in order, or some other form of taking responsibility for one’s actions may be suggested. In a restorative justice circle, everyone is heard and everyone’s view is respected. Again, studies have shown that when targets and aggressors can share open dialogue, the results can be far more positive than would occur in a situation where immediate negative action is taken against the aggressor.
3. Diversity Training -Education is a far better tool than punishment. In an ideal school environment, lessons in diversity should take place in homeroom once per week. When students develop a deeper understanding of “the other,” the door is open to empathy and acceptance.
4. Mediation-Trained Peace Center staff are able to facilitate mediations when serious bullying incidents occur. Victim-Offender Mediation is not a speedy process. It often takes several sessions over the course of many weeks or months for real progress to be made and for healing to begin.
The Peace Center staff is available to train peer mediators in any school in Bucks County.
Additionally, our staff is trained in mediation and restorative justice and is able to facilitate both practices either at The Peace Center or at an agreed upon neutral location upon request.