Governor Chris Christie signed the “Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights” into law Thursday, which advocates say makes New Jersey the state with the strongest stance against school bullying in the nation.
The law, which includes specific provisions for cyber-bullying or bullying through text messages, the internet, or social media, addresses loopholes in a previous anti-bullying measure passed in 2002.
“The law will certainly place New Jersey in the forefront of strengthening the procedures for reporting, investigating and responding to incidents of harassment, intimidation and bullying (HIB),” said Caldwell-West Caldwell Schools Superintendent Daniel Gerardi Friday. “More importantly, it will hopefully help to prevent this type of behavior from occurring.”
Gerardi added, “As advocates for children, our schools certainly endorse and praise the efforts that led to this aspect of the legislation.”
Under the new law, schools in New Jersey are required to report, investigate and resolve bullying issues within a 10-day deadline. Schools will also be equipped with an anti-bullying specialist and team and will be graded for anti-bullying efforts that will be made public.
Gerardi said that while each school will be required to employ an anti-bullying specialist, it is not clear what the credentials and compensation are for this position.
The provisions of the new law do not just apply within school boundaries, but off school grounds — on buses, cyberspace and during extracurricular activities — if the incident carries over to the school.
Gerardi said that while the district’s schools are “safe havens for children and incidents of unacceptable hurtful behavior are effectively managed,” being responsible for incidents that occur off school premises presents a challenge. He said this could be time-consuming and place a strain on the district’s limited resources. He also said the district would need further explanation as to how an administrator could be held liable for not reporting an incident of bullying that he or she was not aware of, but “should have known” about.
The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights arose after more than a year of research by advocacy groups and a government-assigned task force on bullying and came on the heels of recent incidents that reflected a growing trend of cyber-bullying.
“This bill sadly inspired by the tragic death of (Tyler) Clementi, really put some specific regulations and consequences to the ant-bullying policy,” said Assemblyman and former West Orange Mayor John McKeon (D-Essex), a sponsor of the bill.
In September, Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi, 18, jumped off the George Washington Bridge, supposedly after a sexual encounter with another male was caught on his roommate’s webcam and streamed live.
The bipartisan bill passed in November with a significant majority in both the Assembly and the Senate.
“It requires the schools to pay attention, they can’t ignore the issue,” said Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-Essex), a sponsor and major advocate of the bill.
More than 160,000 children a day do not go to school for fear of being bullied, according to the 2009 Report of the New Jersey Commission on Bullying in Schools.
The 2009 National School Climate Survey by GLSEN found that in-school victimization not only leads to a feeling of insecurity in school, but hinders academic success and motivation. Students also are likely to miss more days or school or certain class periods, according to the survey.
“This is the kind of thing that will not only bring comfort to scores of vulnerable individuals, but will save lives,” said McKeon.
Gerardi said that the Caldwell-West Caldwell district has been able to offer parent workshops and student assemblies that address anti-bullying with the support of such organizations as the Home and School Association, the Municipal Alliance, the Caldwell-West Caldwell Education Foundation and other local service clubs.
At the North Caldwell School’s last board of education meeting earlier this week, Superintendent Linda Freda gave an overview of the district’s anti-bullying programs and policies in anticipation of the new legislation. Freda said the district’s two elementary schools each provide grade-appropriate social developmental lessons, beginning in kindergarten.
West Essex Middle School held anti-bullying seminars for seventh and eighth grade students with John Halligan in December. Halligan’s son, Ryan, committed suicide in 2003 as a result of being bullied.