Zero tolerance might sound good, but combating bullying can be as simple as speaking up

Illustration by Ramona Park/Generation Next

I was in sixth grade, eating lunch with a friend I wanted to impress, when another girl from our class came over to compliment my shirt. Instead of responding with gratitude, I made an insulting, unkind comment about her body. The next day, I discovered from a teacher the damage I had done to that girl.

I had acted like a bully.

Or had I? Some professionals may not have defined my action as bullying but rather as meanness, for it was a single comment — cruel nevertheless — delivered on only one occasion. But could it have turned into something more had a caring teacher not stepped into the picture?

Bullying happens all the time — everywhere, every day.

PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center indicates that more than 1 out of every 4 students — 22 percent — report being bullied during the school year. And some 64 percent of children who were bullied did not report it. What are the types of bullying that students experience? About 55 percent say it has something to do with the way they look. Another 37 percent say they have been bullied because of their body type. And 16 percent say they have been bullied because of their race.

A 2014 study conducted by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention defines bullying as “unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths … involving an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times.” By this definition, seemingly harmless and playful teasing, if repeated, is considered bullying.

The PACER Center reports that school-based bullying prevention programs decrease bullying by up to 25 percent — an important point to consider in October, which is National Bullying Prevention Month.

But going overboard to punish a one-time incident of bullying can backfire. Julie Hertzog, the director of the PACER Center, questions the effectiveness of a zero-tolerance policy, which enforces consequences for a single infraction of bullying. “The philosophy was way too stringent. And part of that was simply because bullying happens on a continuum,” she said.

According to one Santa Fe teen, most schools do not give enough attention to individual cases of bullying, but instead try to build up an image that reflects well on the school — such as zero tolerance — so that they can advertise a bully-free environment. Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends and the New Realities of Girl World — which served as the inspiration for the film Mean Girls — said bullying can’t be solved in one assembly or a forum where students pledge to be kind to one another. She encourages schools to have the discussion “in language arts or social studies, where you can really be learning and you can use stuff in literature to have important, realistic, relevant conversations about those issues.”

The gravity of bullying can be so dramatic and life-altering for teens that some stop going to school, some lash out, and some feel so torn down that they attempt to take their own lives. According to The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, there are numerous signs that a child is being bullied, such as their personal belongings getting “lost” or damaged, being afraid to go to school, having physical injuries such as unexplained bruises, not succeeding at school, asking for — or even stealing — money (to give to a bully), losing confidence, becoming distressed and withdrawn, and bullying others.

Witnesses can help, but there are challenges if they can’t or won’t stand up and say something. Erin Doerwald, the program director at the Santa Fe Sky Center, a suicide prevention project, said one reason for that may be because “some brain-scan studies … suggest that our brains react to peer exclusion much as they respond to threats to physical health or food supply. At a neural level … we perceive social rejection as a threat to existence.” Doerwald said that when peers or friends intervene, they are showing that they care, which has a significant impact on teens who are being bullied and who may be considering suicide as a result.

Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out, said, “A lot of bullies do what they do because they’re doing it for an audience.” More often than not, that audience comprises bystanders who say nothing. Wiseman said that situations can often be resolved based on “the social status of the bystander. If the bystander has social status and they say to the person who is being aggressive something like ‘ease up’ or ‘let it go’ or something, then it usually stops it.” PACER’s research indicates that 57 percent of bullying situations stop when a peer intervenes on behalf of the student being bullied.

We have all heard the phrase, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, then don’t say anything at all.” At the time, one Santa Fe Prep teen did not realize that voicing this sentiment would actually diffuse a tense situation in her seventh-grade gym class, but to her amazement, the adolescent boy making fun of another boy’s larger physique was suddenly silenced. And he then proceeded to apologize. “It was so surprising because I honestly didn’t think it would work,” she recalled. “I don’t think teens fully realize how great it feels to intervene when students are bullying other kids.”

Resolving to speak up rather than observe from the bleachers is an example of what Brendon Baca, Santa Fe Public School Student Wellness Action Team coordinator, calls “moving from bystander to upstander,” which he considers a critical lesson to teach students.

But when and how do you become an “upstander?” According to the website, teens are often unsure of when to report what they suspect may be bullying because they do not want to aggravate the situation or draw attention to themselves, thus becoming another victim. Hertzog suggests that students should first distinguish between what is conflict and what is bullying. PACER’s study defines conflict as “a disagreement or argument in which both sides express their views. … In normal conflict, children self-monitor their behavior. They read cues to know if lines are crossed, and then modify their behavior in response.” In understanding the difference between conflict and bullying, students can know when to go to an adult.

Complicating the issue is that while we often think of bullying as playing out on a peer level, adults, including teachers, may play a role in the well-being of students. In a study, “Teachers Who Bully Students: A Hidden Trauma,” Stuart Twemlow defines a bullying educator as “A teacher who uses his-her power to punish, manipulate, or disparage a student beyond what would be a reasonable disciplinary procedure.” In addition, teachers might witness one student bullying another and choose to do nothing about it.

Although bullying itself may never be fully eradicated, there are national and local resources you can turn to for help. Here is a partial list:

u Student Wellness Action Teams, a Santa Fe Public Schools program that takes place in 11 different schools.

u Natural Helpers, a Santa Fe Sky Center Program.

u PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center. Visit

u The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. Visit

Bullying can occur just about anywhere: in the classroom, at home, on the athletic field or on the volleyball court. To combat bullying, be self-reflective and don’t be silent. Find a trusted adult. One great thing about behavior is that it can be changed, and one great thing about silence is that it can be broken.

Sydney Pope is a junior at Santa Fe Prep. Contact her at

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