The news today brought yet another tragic story of a teen suicide related to bullying. The world lost a promising young man who had seen his share of teasing—like the time he’d dyed his hair pink in support of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.
But this time, he was on the other side of the equation. He was the bully. Along with two other boys, he stood accused by his elite prep school of harassing a fellow student because of that student’s sexual orientation. The school sent the boy home and pressured him to withdraw rather than face expulsion.
Some people would have us believe that this is exactly the kind of zero-tolerance policy that is needed to stop bullies. They believe that bullies are bred in the bone, and the only way to make a school safe is to punish the bullies severely, or get rid of them.
But bullying is an act, not an identity. And, as experts and educators know, the child who is bullied in the morning may turn around and bully another child in the afternoon.
What needs to be banished from schools is the culture that nurtures exclusion and bias, not the individual child who acts upon it. Yes, we need to protect the victims and give courage to the bystanders. But we also need to figure out how to redeem those who would bully.
Whether they’re large urban public schools or small private ones, schools need to stop blaming individual students and look to themselves. It takes a village to support a bully.
Costello is the director of Teaching Tolerance.