Last year, a Virginia teen — an honor student and a freshman — was suspended for the rest of the school year for shooting spitballs at students in the hall. Apparently, rolled-up wads of paper blown through a hollowed-out Bic pen constitute a violation of the school’s policy against weapons. The teen was also charged with assault.
A few years earlier, a 13-year-old girl was suspended indefinitely for asking her teacher if she could take a Tylenol for her headache. It would seem that the over-the-counter pain medication violated the school’s strict anti-drug policy. The girl was removed from her class by a security guard.
A boy in kindergarten hugged two classmates and received a suspension for sexual harassment. A Michigan six-year-old’s “finger gun” — the kind children make when playing “cops and robbers” — likewise earned him a suspension.
Over the past few years, we’ve seen zero tolerance policies run amok, with little regard for normal human behavior in the light of stringently-worded rulebooks. We recently hit a new low in the case of Jessica Barba. Depending on how you look at it, this 15-year-old girl from Long Island was either suspended for doing her homework or for no reason whatsoever. Neither of these alternatives is particularly appealing.
Jessica, you see, was working on a multi-media project intended to educate her peers with an anti-bullying message. This included a YouTube video and a Facebook account for a fictional persona named Hailey Bennett, portrayed by Ms. Barba.
Her online materials disturbed a parent, who reported them to the school. Barba was slapped with a five-day suspension with the possibility of it being extended through the end of the school year or even through the next school year pending the results of a hearing. She was also threatened with the possibility of jail time, though legal authorities declined to get involved saying that there was no criminal activity.
Jessica’s sensitive and poignant six-minute video details the story of a 12-year-old girl who was bullied to death. It ends with some frightening statistics about bullying and a plea to teens to stand up and end this trend. Currently, the video is quite clearly labeled a work of fiction. Even if that were not the case at the time, it is obviously a dramatization. What, exactly, was the parent’s complaint? Surely she knew who Jessica was in order to complain about her, so she wasn’t “tricked” into believing there was an actual suicide. Is making a biography about a fictional teen committing suicide in some way insidious? Does it incite some sort of misbehavior? The transgression is elusive.
The stated reason for Ms. Barba’s suspension was “creating a substantial disruption to the school.” Did Jessica do that or did the parent who complained?
The irony is that the adults in Jessica’s world did the very thing she was decrying: they bullied her. Parents, administrators, the school superintendent — everyone ganged up on a teenage girl for some nebulous act of wrongdoing, the exact nature of which remains unclear. To threaten a young girl with six months of jail time — a baseless claim, incidentally, and one in which school officials would have no say — is reprehensible to say the least. If that’s not bullying, what is?
Happily, Jessica had her supporters. Her parents stood by her. The public was outraged on her behalf. Classmates of Jessica created T-shirts, flyers and petitions in her defense — for which they were threatened with disciplinary action, of course. Jessica initially removed her YouTube video but was emboldened by the support she received to replace it, saying that the message was too important to be lost.
The bright side is that Jessica got her message out better than she ever could have imagined. As of this writing, the video has been seen in excess of 213,000 times. The sad part is that she herself had to be victimized in the attempt.
There’s a word in Yiddish, seichel. It means “common sense,” though, like so many words in Yiddish, it’s somehow more concise and punchier than its English equivalent. Zero tolerance policies look good on paper but they often lack seichel in practice. Young children point their fingers and go “bang bang.” It’s not a weapon. Five-year-olds hug their peers. It’s age-appropriate behavior. If an eighth-grade girl asks to take a Tylenol, an appropriate response is to say yes or to say no, not to have her escorted out by security for drug possession. In an overzealous attempt to protect our children from another Columbine, we penalize them for everything from a minor lapse in judgment to acting their own ages. It would appear in the case of Jessica Barba that she was punished merely to appease an angry parent with no regard for the validity of the parent’s complaint. Jessica doesn’t deserve suspension, she deserves an award!
In NCSY, the youth movement of the Orthodox Union, we have taken a firm stand against bullying. We have adopted strict standards to prevent bullying across all strata of the organization. We’ve created and disseminated educational material about bullying in Jewish law and philosophy. We’ve encouraged anti-bullying education and our youth leaders have signed on with those of other youth programs to form a united voice. We have approached our teens with the message of “that which you find hateful do not do unto others” (Talmud Shabbos 31a) and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). We are proud of the way they have answered the call. The youth of our society have largely embraced a culture of non-bullying; have the adults?
We want to teach our children to stop bullying. If we are to do that effectively, our children deserve a reasonable expectation that they won’t be bullied by teachers, principals, school boards or PTAs. We want our children to solve problems using words, not through displays of force. But when they’re subject to detention, suspension, expulsion or the threat of jail over nothing, what message do we send? The days of “do as I say, not as I do” are over. If we are to create an environment free of coercion and intimidation, we can’t leave it to the kids to do alone. It has to start from the top down. Let’s look at ourselves and deal with our children and students as we want them to interact with one another.
Rabbi Steven Burg is International Director of NCSY, the youth movement of the Orthodox Union, as well as Managing Director of the OU.
Rabbi Jack Abramowitz, MS Ed, has decades of experience in teen outreach, most notably with NCSY, and currently serves as Torah Content Editor for the OU web site, www.ou.org.