Zero Tolerance = Zero Help

Aug 29, 2011
Bethany Woolman

Page Media

ACLU of Northern CA

Would it surprise you to hear that almost 85% of LGBT students are verbally harassed at school? Or that 40% are physically harassed? Perhaps you've already heard these troubling statistics, and know that when it comes to stopping bullying, "zero tolerance" is the new catchphrase.

But contrary to popular belief, zero tolerance anti-bullying policies don't actually improve school safety and can end up doing more harm than good to LGBT kids and other vulnerable students. Under zero tolerance 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 Psychological Association, zero tolerance "has not been shown to improve school climate or school safety." This is partly because under zero tolerance policies, school administrators lose the ability to use their own best judgment or consider extenuating circumstances.

The surprising truth is that across the nation, too many LGBT kids are already being unfairly subjected to harsh discipline like suspension and expulsion.

New 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. They are punished more severely than other students, 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.

On the day he died, Carl came home very upset, convinced he was going to be suspended over an incident at school. He had accidentally knocked a TV stand over onto a bully at school, who then threatened to kill him. His mother tried to comfort him, but a few hours later Carl was dead.

The ACLU wants schools across California to know that they have tremendous power and responsibility to protect students from bullying and harassment.

To create a school-wide culture of inclusion and respect for difference, all schools should create clear anti-harassment policies so that students know what kind of behavior is expected of them. Additionally, school leadership needs to provide ongoing professional development for staff so they have the skills to spot and stop bullying.

There must also be a clear reporting system in place to ensure that all reports of harassment are taken seriously and addressed quickly. Once bullying has occurred, punishment alone isn't the answer. School discipline should also help a student who bullies understand and take responsibility for the harm caused.

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.

A recent graduate of Stanford University, Bethany Woolman has just completed her tenure as a John Gardner Fellow at the ACLU of Northern California.