BIPARTISAN ‘ANTI-BULLYING BILL OF RIGHTS’ ADVANCES IN BOTH HOUSES

Comprehensive Legislation is Designed to Change the Culture That Fosters Harassment, Intimidation & Bullying in Schools

The bipartisan “Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights” – sponsored on the Democratic side by Assembly members Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Patrick J. Diegnan, Jr. Paul Moriarty, John McKeon, Pamela Lampitt, and Mila Jasey – advanced out of both the Assembly and Senate Education Committees on Monday.

The legislation (A-3466), which is the product of nearly a year of research and discussions with top bullying experts, advocates and victims, is designed to combat harassment, intimidation and bullying among students.

“The truth is that every day there is a student in an elementary school, high school or even a college who feels a sense of fear and emotional dread every time he or she steps foot into the school building or signs onto the internet,” said Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen). “The negative impacts can be life long. For some students, it will hinder their academic performance. For others, it will mean something unspeakably worse. This bill is about changing the culture that drives these incidents and ensuring that when they do occur, they are properly addressed.”

It is estimated that roughly 160,000 students nationwide avoid school each day because they fear bullying. Today, New Jersey’s rate of bullying, according to a U.S. government report, is actually higher than the national average. Anti-bullying experts believe that New Jersey now has one of the weaker anti-bullying laws in the country because the state’s anti-bullying law, enacted in 2002, was one of the first such laws in the country and other states’ laws have since surpassed it.

The process of crafting such broad legislation began in January following the issuance of a December 2009 report by the New Jersey Commission on Bullying in Schools, which was established by the Governor and Legislature to study the issue of school harassment, intimidation and bullying and make recommendations on how to reduce such incidents. The sponsors stressed that the bill employs smart and efficient uses of existing resources.

Vainieri Huttle noted that over the past 10 months extensive meetings were held with victims and advocates such as Garden State Equality, the Anti-Defamation League, the ARC of NJ, and the New Jersey Coalition for Bullying Awareness and Prevention. The legislative result is a broad initiative to create a standardized way to identify and investigate incidences of bullying and to train teachers, administrators and school board members in identification and prevention techniques.

“Simply stated, the world has changed,” said Diegnan (D-Middlesex). “Our laws, which at one time were cutting edge, do not properly address the problem now. We live in very different times and we need to employ an approach that deals with the bully and the victim along with the environment in which bullying flourishes. This behavior can have a lasting effect on an individual’s development well into adulthood.”

The legislation will provide school administrators with the tools they need to respond to instances of harassment, intimidation and bullying in a timely and effective manner. The measure creates school safety teams that would involve a cross section of the school and give ownership of the problem of bullying to the entire school community.

“What’s scary is that nowadays bullying is a lot more covert than the school yard fights that we were once accustomed to,” said Moriarty (D-Camden/Gloucester). “Kids can be tormented online, unbeknownst to adults, until it becomes unbearable. The sooner we can change this culture, the better it will be for our students and our education system.”

“This measure takes a full-court press approach to addressing the culture that allows bullying to take place every day in our schools,” said McKeon (D-Essex). “By raising awareness of the issue and holding everyone accountable, we can crack down on bullying whether it’s by traditional methods or some form of Internet harassment.”

“The bottom line is that no child should be afraid to go to school because of bullying. Every child deserves a healthy, nurturing learning environment, not an environment that makes students feel isolated or one where they consider harming themselves because of bullying,” said Lampitt (D-Camden). “This bill will ensure adults and school officials are trained to recognize when innocent teasing becomes much more threatening and will install proper mechanisms to crack down on bullying when it occurs.”

“This is about giving everyone the tools they need to prevent and respond to bullying and harassment,” said Jasey (D-Essex). “By getting the school community on board and holding the education system accountable, we can send a clear message that this behavior will not be tolerated.”

Additionally, the bill requires annual reporting on bullying instances from schools and districts to be passed up directly to the Commissioner of Education and it grades each school on how it handles bullying, harassment and intimidation. It also extends bullying protections to off-school grounds and addresses college and university students.

In striving to create a new culture of accountability, the legislation also includes penalties for education officials who fail to report or respond accordingly to incidents of harassment, intimidation or bullying.