10/03/2013 04:39 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Extreme Responses to Bullying Harm Us All

On Saturday, Sept. 28, the Dignity in Schools Campaign kicked off its 4th annual Week of Action Against School Pushout involving over 60 organizations in 42 cities and 24 states. As the Gay-Straight Alliance Network has recently noted, to address student push out, we should closely examine our response to bullying.

Student-on-student harassment that goes unaddressed undoubtedly threatens the safety of the students who fall victim, and the entire school community. The tendency unfortunately is often to either ignore it or to suspend or expel so-called "bullies" from school, or refer them to law enforcement. Neither is an effective solution.

We have seen such extreme reaction before. When concerns over school safety arose in the 1980s and 1990s, the response in schools across the country was to rely more heavily on law enforcement and implement zero-tolerance school discipline policies. However, these measures failed to create safe, nurturing school environments, and instead have led to a number of negative consequences for students, including over-reaction to typical behavior as well as declines in achievement due to missed class time during suspensions and expulsions, and a rise in interactions with the juvenile justice system as a result of school-based arrests and citations.

Policymakers are using the same approach to bullying. As parents' concerns have grown over the last several years, the unfortunate trend has been to respond to this behavior by referring the so-called "bullies" to the police or using other exclusionary discipline measures. Experience tells us this course will not steer us toward a solution to bullying in our schools. Groups like the Gay Straight Alliance Network, whose members themselves are often the targets of this harmful behavior, agree that zero-tolerance is not the answer.

Extreme disciplinary responses can actually make the problem worse, and even hurt the very students they are designed to protect. To defend themselves, victims of bullying often see no other choice than to employ survival tactics, which could include carrying a weapon. As a result, those who have been bullied are more vulnerable to being suspended, expelled and arrested, all because we failed to protect them and address the root problems in the first place.

The reality is so-called "bullies" are typically young people who are struggling with their own insecurities and just learning to understand themselves. Interventions that rely on exclusion and criminalization miss critical opportunities to respond students' unique needs and teach misguided youth the social and emotional skills they will need to grow into healthy adults.

A 2012 report by Advancement Project, the Alliance for Educational Justice, and the Gay-Straight Alliance found that zero-tolerance practices and bullying often affect students in the same way, resulting in lower academic scores, truancy, psychological trauma, diminished self-worth, acting out due to frustration or embarrassment, and dropping out of school altogether. In many ways, schools become the bullies when they employ "get tough" tactics to address student-on-student harassment.

To protect our young people, policymakers should implement common sense solutions that make schools safe environments for all students. They should encourage teachers, administrators and security officers to implement restorative justice, invest in guidance counselors and school psychologists, and facilitate the re-entry and re-enrollment of students returning from expulsions and long-term suspensions.