The [Mis]Interpretation of Anti-Bullying Efforts

By Anita M. Schimizzi, Ph.D.

An article in the New York Times caught my eye last week.  Two first graders engaged in recess roughhousing and one classmate purportedly touched the upper thigh and/or groin of the other.  No witnesses.  The six year-old accused of the touching was promptly suspended from school for sexual assault.  “Sexual assault?!” you say?

The author of the article went on to discuss this incident within the framework of heightened bullying awareness and the pressure that administrators feel to react strongly when students are threatened in some way.  As our readers know, we take bullying very seriously.  In this day and age when research has shown us that bullying leads to outcomes such as increased depression,anxiety, poor academic performance, and suicide risk, we can not afford to ignore the seriousness of this issue that affects children of all ages, races, religions, cultures, sexual orientation, abilities, socio-economic status, and gender.

In her book The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander, Barbara Colorosa includes a section titled “Beware: Zero Tolerance Can Equal Zero Thinking”.  She goes on to describe an array of incidents that underscore her point.  I think that my favorite was the ten year-old that got to school and realized that she had accidentally picked up her mom’s lunch instead of her own.  It contained a knife to cut the apple inside, which she promptly turned in to her teacher, received a thank you, and was then suspended by the principal because rules are rules.

When it comes to understanding behavior, context matters.  That bears repeating.  Context matters!  If we are truly going to address bullying, then part of that work needs to be proper training and ongoing support so teachers, administrators, and others who work with children are taught how to properly identify it, how to take it seriously without overreacting, and how to dole out appropriate consequences that not only keep people safe but also help the child learn and move forward in a more positive way.

Dealing with bullying from the individual all the way up to the system level is a complicated process.  Note that I mentioned both training and ongoing support above.  They are both vital.  We can’t expect school staff to receive all that they need through training alone.  Support that occurs in the trenches is equally important.

I wonder what would have happened in the “sexual assault” scenario if the principal had someone well-versed in bullying that she could have turned to and thoughtfully discussed the incident.  Factors such as his intentions behind and understanding of his behavior could have been explored.  True, she may have come to the same conclusion and suspended the student.  On the other hand, she may have found that it really was playground roughhousing with no intent of harm or intimidation.  For now, the student has switched schools amidst some confusing uproar.  Thanks for reading.  -Anita


Colorosa, B. (2002). The bully, the bullied, and the bystander: From preschool to high school  how parents and teachers can help break the cycle of violence. New York: Harper Collins.

James, S. (2012, January 26). Boy, 6, suspended in sexual assault case at elementary school. The New York Times. Retrieved from