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

The bipartisan “Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights” – led by Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono — has been signed into law.

The law (A-3466) is also sponsored on the Democratic side by Senator Loretta Weinberg and Assembly members Patrick J. Diegnan, Jr., Paul Moriarty, John McKeon, Pamela Lampitt, and Mila Jasey.

The comprehensive effort is the product of nearly a year of research and discussions with top bullying experts, advocates and victims in an effort 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 law is about changing the culture that drives these incidents and ensuring that when they do occur, they are properly addressed.”

“Today New Jersey is sending a powerful message to every child that school will be a safe place for them to learn and grow, not a place for them to dread,” said Buono (D-Middlesex). “There will always be adults who will want to look the other way when a child is bullied and say ‘kids will be kids,’ but now there will be other adults whose job it will be to put a stop to it. Today we can begin to change in earnest the culture of our youth to reject all forms of bullying.”

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 last 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 law employs smart and efficient uses of existing reDests.

Vainieri Huttle noted that for over 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.”

This law 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.

“This law will give countless children and their parents peace of mind and help pull them back from the emotional abyss,” said Weinberg (D-Bergen). “Too many bullied teens have come to see suicide as their only escape from their tormentors. Hopefully, by giving victims of bullying someone to turn to who will hear them and take quick action to protect them, bullied children will realize that their lives are worth living.”

“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 law 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 law 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 law also includes penalties for education officials who fail to report or respond accordingly to incidents of harassment, intimidation or bullying.