When It Comes to Bullying, Empathy Succeeds Where Zero Tolerance Fails

Many schools continue to address bullying with swift and severe punishment. But research indicates that zero tolerance approaches are simply not effective. They don't improve the behavior of the bully (or the victim), nor do they improve school climate and safety.

“The phrase in the Middle Ages was 'as above, so below,' which you can also apply to schools,” said Nicholas Carlisle, executive director of No Bully. It is a citizen sector organization (a k a nonprofit) based in the San Francisco Bay area that applies innovative, long-term solutions to school harassment and violence. No Bully recently won the Judge's Award in the Ashoka Changemakers “Activating Empathy: Transforming Schools to Teach What Matters” competition.

Teachers and administrators often rely on a handbook culture that trains them to address bullying by following the letter of the law. “We live in a society in the United States that leans heavily toward punishment and incarceration as a way of dealing with behaviors that are disruptive to our society, and schools mimic that,” Carlisle said.

This approach may assume that students who repeatedly disrupt classrooms deserve to be suspended, and those that turn to violence should be expelled.

But Carlisle believes that such an approach is counterproductive.

“Punishment is the number one way of dealing with difficult student behaviors,” he said. “But, as is so often the case when dealing with problem behaviors, if you're not successful in your first attempt, you tend to intensify your response. “The punishment model forces us to see some people as bad and some people as good — that's how the model works. But that paradigm is bogus. We don't realize we're making things worse and worse.”

Bullying can go beyond damaging self-esteem, or even causing depression, Carlisle said. As a youngster, he went to “one of those English schools where bullying is so rampant that no one really thinks it should stop.”

Harassment by peers can lead to post-traumatic stress symptoms, similar to the effects of child abuse, and can be crippling for students in their formative years. The cost to the individual is tremendous. Without intervention, aggressors also can have difficulty developing meaningful relationships into their adult lives.

What's the alternative? No Bully's Solution Teams® work to change behaviors and attitudes without using punitive measures. Each team is comprised of the bully, the bully's followers, positive influencers from the peer group, and a “Solution Coach” (there are about five in every school) that is trained in empathetic leadership and able to better understand and respond to student needs.


“The punishment model forces us to see some people as bad and some people as good — that's how the model works. But that paradigm is bogus."

“We give Solution Coaches® a lot of training to develop the skill of empathy, and to understand diversity and social-emotional intelligence, so that students get the message that it's OK to be different,” Carlisle said. “It's about respect.

“Coaches help students understand their peers who may be more effeminate, or masculine, or overweight, or living with disabilities. We are breaking down stereotypes and giving victims support so they don't have to deal with these sensitive issues by themselves.”

The dynamic between bullies and their victims develops over time; so does the approach of No Bully's Solution Team®. In high school, “drama” tends to be a catch-all phrase used to describe disruptive behaviors. Students can be hesitant to speak out about harassment and victims can be self-isolated after years of abuse. But in elementary school, students are much more willing to talk about personal issues and seek assistance from responsible adults.

“You absolutely have to tailor the programming for the age group of the kids,” Carlisle said. “In elementary school, especially in the early years, coaches focus on kindness and talk about the need for everybody to be friends.

“By middle school, you're having to address fairly difficult questions about prejudice, stereotypes, and gender.

By high school, you have to be very direct. Coaches no longer talk about friendship, but rather open deep discussions about community, civics, and ethics.”

At the high school level, it's not uncommon for Solution Teams® to discuss serious issues such as suicide and the holocaust, on the path to discovering “massive tolerance.”

No Bully has produced measureable results.

“We've run about 14 Solution Teams® this year,” said Greg Barnes, assistant principal at Bowditch Middle School. “It stopped the bullying in every case, and we are seeing mutual respect grow between the students. It taps into the fundamental human value that everyone is good at heart.”

No Bully-trained educators resolved incidents of student bullying 80 percent of the time, according to an independent research study conducted between 2009 and 2010 in Bay Area schools. All of the major school districts in Marin County, California were trained in the No Bully System in 2011 with support from a grant from the Lynx Foundation.

Altogether, 32 schools and 108 educators (and even more students) took part in the program At the end of the school year, trainees reported that their Solution Team was successful in ending bullying in 88 percent of cases, and 100 percent success rates aren't that unusual according to Carlisle.

Carlisle and his team are made up of former bullies and victims alike. Their dream is to make No Bully programming available to every school across the United States for free.

“Bullying is a pervasive problem in schools,” Carlisle said. “Our plan is to help as many schools as we can implement the No Bully System across the United States.”