This summer, New York State passed the Dignity For All Students Act. This is a comprehensive bill intended not only to intensify punishment for perpetrators of bullying, but also provide schools with proactive measures to prevent bullying, while promoting tolerance. I feel that this law, in principle is a great first step toward curbing this problem and given some of the recent tragic headlines regarding bullying and teens, a necessary one. But we are collectively fooling ourselves if we believe we can legislate our way out of this problem.
The instant this bill became a law my school enacted a zero tolerance policy regarding bullying. Institutions small and large are enamored with zero tolerance policies because of their intoxicating simplicity. These policies transform the fluid dynamic of a crowd into an if-then equation, allowing the controlling power to make decisions without having to do any evaluating or reflecting. Normally the liberal in me would never stand for such a policy, but under these circumstances this might be the most appropriate and effective solution. But people must enact policies of course, and zero tolerance policies are polluted with bias and apathy.
In a zero tolerance environment I am a complicit bully. Every time I hear a student say “That’s so gay,” and not turn them in or at least correct them I am complicit. Every time I overhear two students quietly humiliate another in the hall I am complicit. When I continue to eat my lunch as adults disparage the “strange kids” in their classes I am complicit. Every time I ignore an untoward email forwarded to me by a colleague I am complicit.
But it isn’t just me. The institution is complicit. A zero tolerance policy is never really zero is it, its more like zero, unless ____________. Maybe I’m tired and over sensitive, but I feel like I have noticed more and more students taking joy in the anguish of others, while more and more adults ignore it. Either we need to enforce the zero tolerance policy with an iron fist and an iron resolve or we need to approach the problem from a completely different direction.