THE BLOG
02/08/2011 08:06 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Bullying: Why Zero-Tolerance Policies Don't Work

I've been reading a lot on the subject of bullying lately, whether it's the "Star Wars"-loving little girl or Chris Colfer from "Glee" creating a PSA addressed to LGBT youth and assuring them, "It gets better."

As I read these stories of bullying -- many tragic stories involving suicides of LGBTQ youth --I've pondered the responses. Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns made an emotional speech directed to LGBT youth, telling them, like Colfer did, that "it gets better." And from the White House to your local school system, a zero-tolerance approach to bullying has been advocated or adopted. Suspension and expulsion are often the cost of being caught as a bully. And while I understand the desire to end bullying in our schools, I can't help but wonder if this approach is flawed.

I have been bullied. And perhaps, in a few instances, I have even been a bully. And if I could travel back in time and meet with my young self, I would certainly try to coach myself on how to adjust my behavior so that I would be less obvious a target for bullies. I would drill into my younger self that one cannot react, take the bait or be reduced to tears by bullies because that merely encourages more bullying.

But I would also tell myself that bullies are often being bullied themselves and their attacks on you are more often about what is happening to them than how they feel about you.

Recently, I contacted two classmates of mine on Facebook. Both had bullied me in middle school -- not repeatedly, and mostly opportunistically. Each incident ended in a few punches being thrown, and for one we both received an in-school suspension for fighting. When I contacted these individuals, neither one remembered the incident. Each was also enormously apologetic, and each related stories of being bullied himself -- one at home, verbally via sarcasm and mocking, and one, quite physically, by older kids and other kids in our class.

I've yet to have the courage to contact the one kid who tortured me from second to seventh grade, but I already know this boy never saw himself as a bully. When my mother passed away during my freshman year of high school, he phoned our home to express his sympathies. I remember my response went something like, "You made my life a living hell for years. Why on earth do you think I'd want to hear from you now?" and I hung up. When I considered our "relationship" over the years, I came to realize that he probably saw us as being friends of some sort. To me, though, he was Damien Thorn with blond hair.

Do I hate these boys? No. While I wish I hadn't endured their attacks (and the attacks of others, both verbal and physical), I cannot deny the simple truth that I learned a lot from those experiences -- that I gained something from having been bullied. My sense of humor runs to the satiric and sarcastic. There are those who find me quite funny. But that sense of humor was honed largely by trying to find ways to retort what the bullies said. I am persistent and argumentative, many would say. And while the latter can be a flaw at times, both traits have served me well, on behalf of those I represent as a literary agent. And I developed those traits, I feel, in response to bullies.

And let's not forget that bullying by no means ends with school. I have worked in the publishing industry for more than 20 years and would describe at least three of my bosses over the years as genuine bullies. While a young editor at a major publishing house, several editors and assistants clearly attempted to bully me -- one going so far as to ask a friend to dump a drink on me at an after-work get-together. Of course, this was the more blatant and juvenile kind of bullying, which is often easier to deal with than the less-obvious gossiping and axe-grinding that goes on in corporations that is nonetheless a form of bullying. When someone in your office gossips or lies and turns others against you, that is simply bullying, even if it's more sophisticated than calling you a "fag" on the playground or dumping your books on the staircase of your school. And this will not end because schools have a zero-tolerance policy against bullying.

It seems to me that we should be teaching kids today how to deal with bullies, and we should be taking those bullies aside and looking at their lives to find out what is making them act as bullies. Are they abused at home? Are they being bullied, in turn, by someone else? Kids are not inherently bullies. Bullies are made, and thus we must unmake them. And suspensions and expulsions will not accomplish this. If schools and government are eager to stop bullying, then more resources must be put into counselors and therapists who can engage with the bullies and get to the heart of what makes them act as they do.

And more can be done with those being bullied. I was terrified of physically standing up to my bullies, yet there's no doubt that in the three instances where I actually threw a punch or two, I was never again bullied by those kids. Kids being bullied are often lacking in the self-confidence to stand up to their bullies, verbally or physically. I would argue that those kids also need counseling to increase their self-confidence because, just as the lion looks for the younger and weaker members of the herd to attack, the bully looks for the kid lacking the ability to stand-up to him -- the kid who is a bit socially awkward, who is a bit "different" from the pack -- to target. These kids can be engaged in different ways to help them be more self-confident, which won't happen through a strict zero-tolerance policy in schools.

Thus, I sing the praises of bullying. I endured it and was made stronger. My heart goes out to the families of those who couldn't take it anymore and made tragic decisions. Let's go beyond "it gets better" and provide real resources to make it better.