We have been discussing the increasingly draconian rules in our schools under zero tolerance policies. Incidents that were once handled by a stern conversation or the calling in of parents are now more likely to result in a formal disciplining or suspension or even criminal charges of a student. A case in point is out of New Jersey where a sixth grade has been found guilty of bullying and given punishment for poking fun at a vegetarian classmate.
The sixth grade said “Vegetarians are idiots and “It’s not good not to eat meat.” The 11-year-old added that his schoolmate “should eat meat because he’d be smarter and have bigger brains.” The other child reported the statements from teachers at Lower Middle School in Montgomery Township which called in the team of ten anti-bullying specialists. They bullying specialist then concluded that the anti-vegetarian comments “were reasonably perceived as being motivated by a distinguishing characteristic between the two boys, namely vegetarianism, which substantially interfered with the rights of K.S. and had the effect of insulting or demeaning him.”
The discipline was relatively minor with five lunch time detentions. However, it worries me that we are making our children hyper-sensitive rather than dealing with opposing, even insulting, views. These are kids expressing adolescent views. Is it really something for a team of “bullying experts” to mete out formal punishment?
We have previously followed the suspensions and discipline of students under zero tolerance policies that are used by teachers to justify zero judgment or responsibility. I have long criticized zero tolerance policies that have led to suspensions and arrests of children (here, here and here and here and here). Here is a prior column on the subject (and here). Children have been suspended or expelled for drawing stick figures or wearing military hats or bringing Legos shaped like guns or pretend bow and arrows or even having Danish in the shape of a gun. Even teeshirts with patriotic or constitutional themes involving guns have been the basis for discipline. Despite the public outcry over the completely irrational and abusive application of zero tolerance rules, administrators and teachers continue to apply them blindly.
I am a great supporter of the effort against bullying and I have spoken on that subject in prior speeches. However, it seems like anti-bullying rules may be going the way of zero tolerance rules on guns where any criticism or taunting now triggers teams of experts on anti-bullying sanctions. It seems like this is a simple matter of raising the issue with the parents to say that the boy’s feelings were hurt or speaking with the offending student to help him understand how such comments can make another student feel. Instead, an investigation is launched and formal findings and sanctions issues.
What do you think?