Zero-tolerance policies aimed at stopping bullying may actually backfire, a panel of experts said Tuesday.
Schools need to stop them now — and the federal government needs to organize better ways to stop both physical bullying and cyber bullying — because bullying is a serious national concern, according to a panel of experts commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences.
"Zero tolerance policies have not had an impact in keeping schools safer and could have adverse consequences," the expert panel said in its report on bullying across the United States.
There's not even enough research to be able to say how common bullying is, said the academy, a group of independent bodies that advise the federal government on scientific and medical policy issues.
"However, the prevalence data that are available indicate that school-based bullying likely affects between 18 and 31 percent of children and youth, and the prevalence of cyber victimization ranges from 7 percent to 15 percent of youth," the report reads.
"These estimates are even higher for some subgroups of youth who are particularly vulnerable to being bullied (e.g., youth who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender [LGBT], youth with disabilities)."
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What is clear is that the problem is real, serious and that it's not simply a rite of passage.
"Bullying is not a normal part of childhood and is now appropriately considered to be a serious public health problem," according to the report by Frederick Rivara, a professor of pediatrics and epidemiology at the University of Washington and Seattle Children's Hospital, and his colleagues.
Bullying does not completely explain the high risk of youth suicide, the panel concluded, and it is impossible to say how much it influences school shootings.
"It is a factor, and perhaps an important one, but it does not appear to be the main influencing factor in a decision to carry out these violent acts," the report reads.
But research is clear that bullying is psychologically harmful to both perpetrators and victims.
All 50 states and Washington, D.C. have bullying laws, but they vary a lot and are not necessarily rooted in what the research shows, the panel says.
"There is emerging research that some widely used approaches such as zero tolerance policies are not effective at reducing bullying and thus should be discontinued, with the resources redirected to evidence-based policies and programs," it said.
This should be organized from the top down, the experts recommended.
"The U.S Departments of Education, Health and Human Services, Justice, Agriculture, and Defense and the Federal Trade Commission, which are engaged in the Federal Partners in Bullying Prevention interagency group, should foster use of a consistent definition of bullying," they said.
The groups should meet annually, look at the research, and report to Congress and state legislatures.
Research shows that zero-tolerance policies do little or nothing to help the victims or perpetrators, and there's some evidence that people may not report bullying because of the fear of unfairly harsh punishment.
Plus there is growing evidence that the harshest discipline is unequally applied to blacks, Hispanics and other students of color, it said.
"The programs that appear most effective are those that promote a positive school environment and combine social and emotional skill-building for all students, with targeted interventions for those at greatest risk for being involved in bullying," the report reads.