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Comprehensive Legislation Is the Result of a Nearly Year-Long Study to Change the Culture that Fosters Harassment, Intimidation & Bullying in Schools

Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono and Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle today unveiled the “Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights” – bipartisan legislation designed to combat harassment, intimidation and bullying among students. The lawmakers were joined by advocates and victims who shared their stories, some of whom played key roles in the crafting of this legislation, which entailed nearly a year of research and discussions with top bullying experts.

The bipartisan measure is also sponsored by Senator Diane Allen (R-Burlington/Camden) and Assemblywoman Mary Pat Angelini (R-Monmouth).

“Our efforts today are based on the very simple belief that no child should ever be afraid of going to school,” said Buono (D-Middlesex). “The concept of bullying can no longer be confined to the tough kid on the playground, roughing up classmates for lunch money. We must accept that kids can be bullied at any time and any place, whether it be face-to-face or through hateful messages on a cell phone. We must protect our kids and allow them to grow up free of the emotional pain that can lead them into despair that life is not worth living.”

“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.”

The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights is designed to raise awareness of bullying, harassment, and intimidation in schools and prevent instances of abuse. The sponsors noted that the bill employs smart and efficient uses of existing reDests.

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.

“This initiative will create a proactive, comprehensive approach to the incidences of bullying that happen every day,” Allen stated. “This program will raise awareness and hopefully alleviate the harmful effects of bullying. When we adopted the first anti-bullying law, in May of 2002, it was groundbreaking legislation. Since then other states have far surpassed us. Now, with this legislation we are once again leading the nation in an effort to stop bullying in person, and over the internet.”

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 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.

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.

“This bill protects all students who are bullied, not just students bullied because they belong to a particular group that faces discrimination,” said Steven Goldstein, head of Garden State Equality. “Given the painstaking year of work that went into this legislation, it should not be interpreted as a knee-jerk reaction to the tragic death of Tyler Clementi. Although New Jersey must respond to that – and this bill does.”

“As lawmakers, it has taken stark circumstances to realize the shortcomings that still exist in current law,” said Senator Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen), a cosponsor along with Buono of a 2008 law that strengthened state hate crime and anti-bullying law. “Closing these gaps are essential to changing people’s ideas of what constitutes bullying, and will protect countless kids from unspeakable harm.”

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.

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.

“The most frightening realization is that bullying no longer has to be face-to-face, as the Internet and cell phones have allowed tormenters to reach their victims at any hour of that day from any place,” said Buono. “The sooner we can change the culture of youth to reject all forms of bullying, the better. Kids will be kids, but we cannot afford to look the other way when playful teasing becomes something much more sinister and threatening.”

“The only way to effectively combat bullying is to change the culture of our schools,” added Vainieri Huttle. “By giving students and educators the tools they need to successfully prevent and respond to bullying and to also give communities the ability to hold the state education system accountable, we send the clear message that harassment, bullying, and intimidation will not be tolerated.”