Could anti-bullying rules become red tape?Published 9:50am Friday, January 18, 2013
Column: Notes from Home, by David Behling
It was on the last page, inside the black lines of a box, the only words of grace or mercy to be found in the whole document.
In a few short sentences, the paragraph declared that the district recognized that the individual — a student — charged with breaking the rules was a child, inexperienced, immature and still learning about decision-making and consequences. But the punishment meted out at the hearing (punishments also described elsewhere in that same document) negated or ignored anything those few sentences seemed to have accepted as a basic truth.
How do parents and students get to this place of merciless judgement? How do the administrators in charge of the process get to this same place? Bureaucratic mentalities, that’s how, which place adherence to policy above everything else and refuse to allow the compassionate truth expressed in that paragraph to break through the black lines that surround it.
Along with many parents and other observers of schools over the past couple decades, I’ve noticed a pattern of overreactions across the country. A girl leaves a pair of craft scissors in a bag in her car. Suspended. Another girl is accused of having extra-strength ibuprofen tablets. Strip-searched by a male administrator and then suspended. A boy drops the box cutters he uses at work on the back floor of his car, which is locked, sitting in the parking lot. Expelled. A boyfriend and a girl, in a long-term romantic relationship, kiss in the hallway. Suspended.
The uniting factor here is school policies: Zero tolerance for drugs, sexual harassment and anything resembling a weapon. The rules have been imposed on students because bad things have happened. The policy, by banning public displays of affection, drugs and weapons, are intended to protect students, teachers and administrators from harm.
These policies are probably good policies, at their hearts, created with the best of intentions. When people enter a school, whether as children or as adults, there should be an expectation that this is a safe place for teaching and learning — free of dangerous drugs, unwanted sexual groping and weapons.
What has undermined these policies as effective methods to deal with students who make mistakes is the way that they get implemented. Like nearly all student behavior policies, this happens via a process in which all the participants lose their human individuality and become cogs in a machine. The incident or situation becomes a “case” and set rules come into force.
Who the people are — ages, intentions, situations — is irrelevant; it is assumed that the “perpetrator” has acted intentionally, not accidentally, not out of stupidity or immaturity. Extenuating circumstances are irrelevant. Here’s a fact — a pill, a kiss, a box cutter — and these are the consequences; this is what the rule says must be done. A teachable moment becomes a punitive process.
So with the wave of concern about bullying cresting across our nation and our community, I’m worried about how this legitimate concern gets translated into policies enacted by school boards and enforced by administrators. How long until a family sits in an office facing a document which imprisons the truth about the children involved inside a box and puts them through the shredder of impersonal policy enforcement?
Are bullies a problem in our schools? Yes. As a victim of bullies, my own bruises and scrapes may be long healed, but the memories have not completely faded. However, bullies are also a problem on county boards, in legislatures, in government agencies and in corporate boardrooms. Anything our society does when responding to the injustice and unfairness that allows bullies to profit from their threats needs to recognize their appearance everywhere.
What I fear more than anything, even more than the bullies themselves, is the implementation of anti-bullying policies; well-intentioned attempts to reduce or eliminate bullying in schools could become yet another bureaucratic procedure in which the students’ main lesson is contempt for the system. Before I will support new policies about bullying, I need to see a move away from “zero tolerance” slogans and more transparency and compassion in administrative decisions involving “children who are still learning” about all sorts of things, including when something foolish becomes something both stupid and dangerous.
David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.