Last spring a 17-year-old Indianapolis student faced expulsion from high school after using a stun gun to fend off bullies he claims were about to beat him up. And in Florida an 18-year-old girl was punished for threatening bullies who had been harassing her and a disabled student. Stories of kids defending themselves—and being rebuked for it—are popping up all over. We're now focusing on the second, defensive punch—not the first hit that started it all. We're spotlighting the retaliation, not the instigation. This is often how schools' "zero tolerance" rules work—punishing the target and not addressing the problem that made the person think he had to defend himself in the first place.
Make sure you and your child understand the school's policy on bullying, whether your kid is the victim or advocating for one. I tell my kids that staying neutral when you see someone being picked on doesn't look neutral. It looks like you're siding with the bully. Whether they encourage the target to walk away with them or say two words as simple as "Lay off," something must be done. Also tell them you've got their back as long as they do the right thing: Find the adult they think is the most responsible, intelligent and reliable person in the school and ask him or her to handle the situation.
Originally published in the September 2012 issue of Family Circle magazine.