THE BLOG
01/22/2014 05:22 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Zero Tolerance Is Mean and Stupid

My entire high school experience was a living hell that still haunts me sometimes when I'm least expecting it - a flashback when I see a school, a nightmare just before it's time to wake up for work.

In seventh grade there was a boy who used to follow me through the hallways lightly kicking the back of my heels while mumbling sweet little anti-gay epithets. After several months of trying to avoid him, asking him to stop, and ignoring him I decided to stop in my tracks, turn around, and punch him in the face. I'm not going to lie, for a hot minute, it was empowering and awesome.

Unfortunately a teacher saw me and promptly escorted me to the principal's office where I was sentenced to detention. I was too embarrassed to tell them I was being bullied based on my sexual orientation or my femininity, but I'm certain everyone knew anyway. There was a little piece of me that felt badass for getting detention, and I made sure all the other kids knew I punched the bully, which helped curb some of the harassment for a few weeks.

This wouldn't be the last time I landed in trouble for defending myself from bullies. I was punished for skipping gym class, where the bullying was relentless. I was forced to apologize to a boy who tried to choke me on the bus because I "aggravated" him. And in a school counseling session, referred to as "group," a counselor suggested that I should "stop walking around the halls like a sad puppy dog." So helpful.

The continuous re-victimization I experienced from my school was extremely damaging to my confidence to the point that I became suicidal. After 9th grade, I switched schools. But not every student is able to switch schools or leave town for a fresh start. Just two years ago a gay student from my very same high school killed himself due to anti-gay bullying. I can't help but wonder if he was also let down by the school administration.

Today thousands of schools have zero tolerance policies that end up punishing any student involved in an altercation or rules violation. These policies are not effective at preventing or addressing bullying, and often result in students being suspended from school. Students who are suspended are more likely to land in jail, potentially ruining their life into adulthood.

Students of color and LGBT students are often re-victimized by these terrible policies for defending themselves from bullies or for expressing themselves. I met a black, lesbian student last year who was suspended for wearing a hat to cover her hair, which her family couldn't afford to have professionally done regularly. Her suspension put her behind in school, angered her parents, and triggered a downward spiral in her self confidence.

Recently, I've been working with the family of Jewlyes Guiterrez, a transgender student of Hercules, California, who is facing battery charges after punching the students who were bullying her on a daily basis. First she was re-victimized by her school, which has since revised its policies, and now the DA has gotten in on the action. Fortunately, her sisters and parents are incredibly supportive and have even set up this petition. I urge you to sign it!

We live in a society that seems to thrive on violence and punishment instead of creativity and compassion. CeCe McDonald, a transgender woman from Minneapolis, has a story that draws comparison to Jewlyes's. She was recently released from jail after serving a sentence in a men's prison. CeCe, in self-defense, stabbed someone who was violently attacking her while yelling racist and transphobic slurs.

At a time when our government should be working to reduce the violence and discrimination faced by transgender women of color, it is further victimizing and stigmatizing the community. It behoves us all to draw attention to stories like CeCe's and Jewlyes's, and call for change.

In my family we had discussions about the students who were bullying me. We talked about how difficult their lives must have been. Most of them were farmers. They were getting up at the crack of dawn to shovel pig shit, and they would come to school smelling like it. They lived in poverty. Perhaps some had violence at home, or other familial challenges. Cultivating compassion for my bullies was the best way to soothe the emotional wounds they inflicted.

I was moved by the parents of Sasha Fleichman, an agender student who was lit on fire by a bully on an Oakland city bus. They called for compassion towards the young attacker, noting the potential for him to change and grow. And recently, the father of Emilie Parker, a student who was killed in the horrific school shooting in Connecticut, offered love and sympathy to the family of the shooter in a speech that has gone viral.

School policies desperately need an injection of this style of radical kindness. They need to empower teachers and administrators to look at each child, each situation, and address them in compassionate ways that bring peace. Oakland Unified recently implemented restorative justice policies to address the high rates of suspension, particularly among students of color. And, just last week the Department of Justice released new guidelines that encourage schools to move away from zero tolerance policies to reduce suspensions (see video below). Schools would be wise to follow suit.