Zero Dark Tolerance, or Bully for You!

Bedlam’s assistant principal, J. Hilliard, was known for neither restraint nor reflection. He tended to either quietly observe everything with a suspicious look, or pound the table repeatedly to make a point to which he was deeply committed. In this case, he was definitely exhibiting the latter tendency. The setting was the after-school meeting of Bedlam Christian School’s Faculty Liaisons to the Administrative Board (FLAB). The group had been set up three administrations ago in order to provide a dialogue between the principal and faculty on important issues. Eleven of the members of the group sat around one of the long tables in the staff room. The twelfth member, Hilliard, was standing and pounding the table.

The object of his excitement was his newly proposed Zero Tolerance on Bullying at Bedlam Policy (ZTOBABP). “The policy is clear as can be,” said Hilliard, punctuating each word as if he were speaking to a group of raw army recruits who didn’t quite understand. “If a kid bullies another kid, shoves him into a locker, writes a threatening note, throws him in the dumpster, says bad things about him on Facebook, or even looks at him funny – the offender is expelled. For good. Once the students hear about this policy, once the fear of expulsion gets into them, then bullying will stop.”

Music teacher Carrie Wellema shook her head. She remembered Hilliard’s Zero Tolerance for Food Fights, Zero Tolerance for Chewing Tobacco, Zero Tolerance for Dress Code Violations, Zero Tolerance for Long Hair on Boys, and Zero Tolerance for Animals in School (especially snakes). Each program had eventually fallen apart when a reasonable exception to the rule appeared. The long hair one had crumbled when several of the local churches hired youth ministers with long hair and the chapel committee switched off between the three of them through an entire month of chapels on tolerance.

Bedlam’s counsellor, Maxwell Prentiss-Hall, shook his head too, but Carrie could see from his face that something was deeply troubling him. Indeed, he seemed to be trembling. And one eye was twitching. And a sheen of perspiration was gathering on his forehead. He cleared his throat and raised a tentative hand.

“What?” Hilliard barked, the tendons in his neck taut as piano wire. He leaned forward, his palms planted on the table. A lean and hungry look lurked in his eyes.

“Um,” Maxwell stammered, “I was . . . um . . . I was thinking that maybe . . . um . . . maybe we should . . .”

“Spit it out!” Hilliard commanded. He had known jugheads like Maxwell in the service. They were indecisive and slow to action, and only a month of basic training could wash the weakness away.

“I don’t think your system is such a good idea,” Maxwell said in a rush of words. He blushed as his eyes fell to his folded hands.

Hilliard was unaccustomed to such affronts to his authority, and his first inclination was to view it as insubordination. But then he remembered that he was no longer in the marines. He took a deep cleansing breath, blew it out, and repeated in his head his personal mantra of leadership: Fail to honor people and they’ll fail to honor you. Fail to honor people and they’ll fail to honor you.

He opened his eyes, smiled at Maxwell, and said in voice that almost sounded pleasant, “Would you care to elaborate, Max?”

Max looked up timidly and said, “Well, if we show zero tolerance, we seem more focused on punishment than on reconciliation. Wouldn’t it be better to restore a broken relationship than merely to end it? Wouldn’t that be closer to a Christian ideal? At least that’s the lesson I have learned in my life.”

Hilliard rolled his eyes. This sort of namby-pamby approach was what made his job as assistant principal so hard. “Look, Max. You are missing the beauty of my system. The policy makes it clear as can be. If a kid hurts another kid or even looks like he might hurt another kid, he is out. Don’t you get it? The fear of the policy will get those kids to straighten up and fly right.”

Max stood up nervously and began working his way toward Hilliard. “No, I think you might be missing the point.” He turned toward the rest of the assembled faculty group. “You see, when I was in high school right here at Bedlam back in the late 80s, I was bullied. I was placed in a dumpster, taunted for my braces, and mocked for my clothes. It was pretty brutal. I used to wonder what would make those guys want to pick on me so much. But then time passed, we all grew up, and one of the biggest bullies ended up becoming my friend and colleague, our very own Mr. Hilliard.”

The faculty was silent. Max reached up a hand and placed it on the assistant principal’s shoulder. Hilliard shot him a look that made it clear he was in danger of losing that hand, so he withdrew it.

“Did it ever occur to you, Max, that this new policy is my way of trying to atone for the past?” Hilliard said. “I know I was a jerk back then. I’ve told you that I’m sorry.”

“I know you’re sorry,” Max said. “And I’m sorry for bringing it up because we buried that hatchet long ago. But don’t you see the irony here? If your policy had been in existence twenty-eight years ago, you would have been expelled. That might have saved me some bullying, but it would have made it far less likely that we would be working as colleagues today. I’m not interested in punishments. I’m interested in keeping the victims safe, just like you are, but I am also interested in helping the bullies.”

Hilliard had never thought of it that way before. He realized that Max, for all his wishy-washiness, really had forgiven him, and really did want to help kids who bullied other kids. This caught Hilliard a bit off guard, and although tears would never even think of leaving his eyeballs, he found himself getting a little bit sniffly in the nose. Uncomfortable with this feeling, and afraid that Maxwell might try to grasp him in a warm hug of affirmation, Hilliard decided to give Max a high-five. Max, however, had both arms extended as he was, indeed, about to affirm the warmth he’d seen in Hilliard with a gender-appropriate, side-hold “man-hug.”  Now Max had to make a mid-course correction.  Unfortunately, Max had significant hand-eye coordination issues.

Consequently, Max’s hand waved past Hilliard’s untouched before it landed on the vice principal’s cheek with an audible slap. Hilliard’s cheek stung and his eye on that side immediately began to water.  He turned a stunned face to the faculty who looked on in shock.

“I’m so sorry,” Max said, and now he did throw an arm around the vice principal’s shoulder. “It was an accident. Really.”

“No problem,” Hilliard mumbled, his shoulders stiff beneath Max’s touch.  Then knowing no other way to get Max to stop touching him, he said to the assembled faculty,  “Ahem.  Thank you all for your input.  Meeting adjourned.”


Jan Kaarsvlam has recently discovered that online education is not very lucrative in the real world. Although he owns a 450,000-square-foot mansion in cyberspace, he was having trouble paying rent on his trailer. He is excited about his recent decision to accept a position as assistant to the assistant principal at Calvin Christian School in Winnipeg, Manitoba. His new bride is, however, not as enthusiastic since such a move would mean uprooting her successful online virtual manicure operation.