4 min

What makes bullies tick

Maybe zero tolerance isn't the best idea

With lobby groups like Egale Canada calling for schools to crack down on harassment and bullying – and victims suing schools allowing bullying to happen – school boards and staff are realizing that there are no instant answers.

What’s the best way to deal with bullying, particularly if it’s based on sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression? Experts say there is a disconnect between what policymakers are doing and what works.

Ontario, for example, has a zero-tolerance policy against many kinds of disruptive student behaviour. The Safe Schools Act 2000, a province-wide policy established by former premier Mike Harris to “increase respect and responsibility [and] to set standards for safe learning and safe teaching in schools,” does not specifically mention bullying. But it does mandate suspension as the punishment for “uttering a threat to inflict serious bodily harm on another person” and expulsion as the punishment for “committing physical assault on another person that causes bodily harm requiring treatment by a medical practitioner.”

But last month the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and the Ontario Human Rights Commission agreed to interpret the act differently, giving principals the power to look at options other than suspension and explusion. The TDSB also has policies of its own, defining the issue more broadly. Violence incorporates “not only physical aggression, verbal and psychological abuse (for example putdowns, threats, name-calling) as well as incidents of racism, sexism and homophobia…. Victims are not only those with physical injuries and hurt feelings but also those who observe violence at home, at school or in the community.” Bullying can result in a three-day suspension, though the principal and teachers are allowed to consider mitigating circumstances.

Some experts say harsh penalties and zero-tolerance policies don’t address root causes.

Leena Augimeri, director of the Centre For Children Committing Offenses at the Toronto-based Child Development Institute, which does research about child-rearing issues, says that schools should define different levels of bullying and recognize that a certain amount of friction between kids is a natural part of child development.

“I hate to see kids get suspended for minor ridiculous things. They have to ask ‘What is considered extreme?’ Bullying has to be stopped when there is definitely an unequal balance and a child is using that kind of behaviour to torment another child.”

Augimeri says there are four different types of bullying: Physical bullying, which includes hitting, punching, biting, pulling hair and the like; verbal bullying, which includes teasing and name-calling; emotional bullying, which involves kids getting rejected or humiliated; and sexual bullying, which ranges from harassment to abuse involving touching.

While some school boards are proactive in looking at the issue of bullying, often policies are only implemented when the school board is sued by a student who has been the victim of bullying.

A Staten Island-based contrarian on the issue, Izzy Kalman, has been a school psych-ologist for the past 26 years. He argues that anti-bullying policies don’t help, and may make the problem worse. Kal-man says parents and schools should approach the issue of bullying in the opposite way we’re inclined to – by helping victims of bullying learn skills to make bullies leave them alone and prevent them from becoming future targets.

Kalman says students need to be taught not to respond negatively and aggressively to bullies, but rather to talk to them patiently and empathetically. By reacting more calmly, he argues, victims are reducing the bully’s incentive to pick on them.

Augimeri agrees that current no-tolerance approaches teach neither the bully nor the victim how to deal with problems.

“Bullying will always exist because there will always be individuals who have learned to bully,” says Augimeri. “We have to provide kids, both the victims and the bullies, with strategies on how to cope. We need to empower the victim and empower the bully so that they don’t have to be like that.”

Augimeri says antihomophobia or antiracism teaching in schools needs to look at the broader issue of teasing and name-calling.

“Nobody says out of the blue, ‘You’re a fag, you’re this or that,’ unless they’re very angry. A lot of times they don’t know what it means, it’s so common.”

She says that parents and teachers need to talk to kids about their use of terms like, “It’s so gay,” to describe something that’s uncool because “they often think it’s an acceptable term until it is explained to them. We have to ask them if they understand what they are saying.”

For the victim she says, the impact of the teasing isn’t differentiated by the words used, especially in a context where kids don’t understand what the words mean and use it just to get attention. “They’re being picked on and it hurts. The words don’t matter.”

Both Augimeri and Kalman feel that forcing schools to punish bullies merely perpetuates the child’s behaviour. If a bully is given a detention or suspension after their victim complained, it’s likely that they will want to seek revenge on their victim, just starting the process all over again. Often victims will want revenge as well, creating a new crop of bullies. Kalman cites Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold – who went on a killing rampage at Columbine High School in April 1999 after being teased about their sexual orientation – as examples of victim mentality gone wrong.

Sending children home isn’t seen as the punishment it once was. Augimeri says suspensions, if they need to take place, should occur in the school setting.

James Montagnes, who leads workshops on bullying through his firm Montagnes And Associates, doesn’t think much of suspensions, either.

“Frogs in a jar in formaldehyde – they are in suspension. Those frogs get as much learning as a kid on suspension. If you’re going to have a discipline program then have a discipline program that helps kids to learn to deal with their frustration.

“Bullying is symptom. What that tells me is that we have a frustrated child. We end up punishing the symptom and never dealing with the problem. Unless we deal with the symptom it’s going to continue.”

“Schools are now required to get in the middle whenever anyone complains that they were bothered by anyone else,” says Kalman. “Kids can get teachers to stop teaching – kids love to do that.

“Parents and educators should accept that the primary role of the school is teaching academics…. Time spent handling disputes between children is time stolen from the purpose of school.”