How zero tolerance punished the wrong child

My son started kindergarten with exuberance and within a week was sullen. Soon after, we started receiving notes from the school that he was harassing three girls. As a consequence, he was not allowed to run on the field; he had to stay on the playground so that he and the girls could be separated. He was devastated.  We were confused and concerned. We believe in logical consequences and if he was bringing these girls to tears, he had to be restricted. But it was totally out of character. In 5 years of day care and pre-school, he never bothered, harassed or did more than horse around with another child.

Nothing I’ve experienced in my life compares to the hurt I felt when my son was hurting. We couldn’t figure out what to do. We talked with him – but he couldn’t explain what was happening. We didn’t know if one of us should stop working to help him to figure this out. We asked the teachers to tell us what they saw. I even tried to surreptitiously observe recess. We asked friends and parents for ideas. Maybe he was too young for school.

Then my husband tripped on a toy train and put his arm through a plate glass window severing his ulnar nerve.

His reluctance to tell many people how he got hurt led him to sequester himself with the children at a community event and he saw an older girl, a third grader, approach our son.

Children playing tag
“Chase me?” she asked.

“No” he responded.

“C’mon, chase me!” she said

“No” he responded.

“Please, chase me!” she goaded.


And he did. Caught and tagged her. Then she burst into tears and headed for her parents. She didn’t count on being observed and intercepted by his Dad. My husband told her he saw and heard everything. After a feeble attempt at denial, she acknowledged that she was asking my son to chase her.

It was a game – three third grade girls discovered they could control the teachers by provoking my son to chase them, crying about it and getting him punished.  He was just 5 and had no way to put together that the invitation to play tag was the bait to get him in trouble.

Suffice to say, the game ended that night. My husband spoke immediately to two of the girls’ parents (with the girls whimpering alongside) and I informed the Head of School about what was transpiring.

To the Head’s credit, he immediately apologized; spoke to the on duty teachers and the girls and the behavior stopped. And that same day, my exuberant, giving child re-emerged.

Zero tolerance was punishing the WRONG child. It’s so much harder to observe and prevent verbal/emotional bullying.  Kids are smart and they hide it. 

I wonder how else we could have figured out the problem.  Any ideas?