FORT LEE – State activists for anti-bullying laws and Fort Lee School administrators met on the front steps of the high school to commemorate the start of what is believed to be the most comprehensive anti-bullying measures in the country on Sept. 6, shortly after Fort Lee High School (FLHS) students sat down for their first day back to school.
Assemblywoman Valerie Huttle and Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono, who both played integral parts in getting the “Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights” signed, said that while the legislation was signed into law on January 5, the state’s Department of Education has not provided sufficient support in ensuring every school adopts its policies.
Huttle said 160,000 children stay home everyday because they are afraid of bullying.
“These are the kids that we need to give that message to this morning. They will be protected,” said Huttle. “The schools will protect them, and parents in the community will be stakeholders in this to keep them safe.”
Huttle said the Fort Lee administrators, principals and teachers are already implementing the new anti-bullying laws.
According to Huttle, Buono sponsored the first anti-bullying bill in 2002, one of the first bills of its type at the time, but it did not go far enough.
“Bullying is no longer just that rite of passage or child’s play out in the school yard,” Huttle added. “It is now the 21st century bullying where kids are affected in cyberspace; they’re affected on Facebook; they’re affected when they leave the school grounds and go home. This is why we feel it’s so important that when these kids go home and come back to school, the school will protect them.”
Jennifer Ehrentraut understands cyber-bullying all to well. Her cousin was Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University student who committed suicide after another student allegedly posted a video of his gay sexual encounter.
“Along with everyone here today, we have to emphasize the importance of this anti-bullying law,” said Ehrentraut. “It’s not only up to the teachers and legislators; its up to each and every one of us, everyday, to be kind to one another. I’m also here to introduce Garden State Equality Anti-Bullying Hotline. This is for anyone who is being bullied or if you know someone being bullied or you just need to talk.”
The new law does not provide a hotline to the DOE for parents or students to call in the event of a bullying incident, but students and parents can contact the Garden State Equality Anti-Bullying Hotline at 1-877-NJBULLY or text NJBULLY at 66746 if they have been unsuccessful in addressing their concerns to their principal, superintendent or school board.
Stuart Green, Director of the New Jersey Coalition for Bullying Awareness and Prevention, said while the state’s Department of Education has made excuses including lack of staff and funding, the real issue is that they have never adequately prioritized the bully issue, including making students feel safe, supported, included and engaged.
“It is absolutely what’s needed for students to be able to learn and perform well academically,” said Green. “Prioritizing this issue is prioritizing learning and ultimately academic performance as well. And that’s never happened.”
Green said when he chaired the state’s commission on bullying, one of the first acts of participation by the state’s department of education was to “question why we had a commission to address this issue” and “what was more important about it than all the other issues schools grapple with.”
“All students where violence is not adequately addressed experience states of tension, fear, numbing, diminished empathy, and lots of things that interfere with learning and ultimately with academic performance and good citizenship. Not addressing this issue is at the core of many of the things we worry about as a society – not only with children, but in terms of adult behavior as well.”
Fort Lee School Superintendent Bandlow echoed Green’s mindset, adding that his administration has great cooperation with community resources, they understand that while the law puts the onus on schools, and they know the solution is a community matter where support is critical.
Bandlow said while concerns have been raised regarding lack of guidelines and grey areas within the new law, the district is being proactive.
He said while the law was signed on Jan 5, the district started reviewing existing policies the next day.
“Our administrators have gone through training and our staff has gone through some training in the last few days,” Bandlow said. “So they are well acquainted. The notion that we need to do something about bullying, there’s nothing new about that. But if anyone had any doubt that it is a critical responsibility of teachers and school administrators and school boards, that doubt has been erased.”
In accordance with the law, the district has already assigned various staff members at each school to operate as anti-bullying coordinators and specialists, and provide helpful resources and information for parents and students.
After the meeting, Assistant School Superintendent Steven Engravalle drew a parallel between the new bullying law and the seat belt law.