Gov. 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. 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.
“New Jersey is in the forefront of historic change and the rights of our students to go to school free of harassment,” said Frank Vespa-Papaleo, an attorney who helped develop the policy.
The bill was signed into law just days after a sixth-grade boy allegedly posted threats on Facebook to shoot and bomb his classmates at Thomas A. Edison Central Six School in West Orange.
But Dr. Anthony Cavanna, superintendent of West Orange schools, said the township already has an effective system in place to tackle bullying.
“We deal with bullying appropriately and even had a reporting mechanism before the law even required it,” he said. “There are many programs at different levels that address bullying and how to deal with it, such as the leadership programs at the high school that train mentors and work directly with students.”
When the student from Edison allegedly posted four death threats on Facebook that were directed toward his classmates, school officials worked with the West Orange Police Department, informed parents and organized cyber-bullying sessions, according to Cavanna.
“They reacted well to the incident,” said Liz Hughes, a West Orange resident with three children in the school system. “As a whole, West Orange has a fabulous anti-bullying program, they’re very thorough … I feel very secure as a parent in this district.”
For Hughes, the new law would “reinforce thoroughness” and “bring everyone on the same page.”
“You always want to be on the side of preventing and not reacting,” she said. “It would be nice to know you’re bringing students in and out of your district with the same understanding. It will make it a very solid foundation for everyone.”
The unidentified sixth-grader, who made the threats, was arrested Monday, but was not charged and was released to his parents, according to West Orange police. He does, though, face a 10-day suspension and a mandatory psychological evaluation. Police said when the incident occurred, they did not believe the boy posed a credible threat to other students and determined it to be a hoax.
West Orange Board of Education President Megan Brill said West Orange is “really ahead of the curve” and that the law will help raise awareness.
“We were surprised to see a sixth-grader with such a strong opinion with wanting to hurt (someone),” she said. “That kid, and kids like him, need to understand there are serious consequences and specific laws that are going to punish kids that even say they want to hurt somebody.”
The law’s “multifaceted approach” that involves parents, administrators, teachers and outside professionals that provide training, create “many different layers that work together,” said Vespa-Papaleo. “It helps it sets forth time lines, it creates actual requirements for what school districts must do and it also, for the first time, lays out a significant amount of training.”
Under the new law, the provisions 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.
“Now it’s clear and unequivocal that a school district must stop (bullying), even if it’s occurring over technology,” said Vespa-Papaleo.
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 jumped off the George Washington Bridge supposedly after a sexual encounter with another male was caught on his roommate’s webcam and streamed live. Two Rutgers students are charged with invasion of privacy. Dharun Ravi, 18, of Plainsboro, and Molly Wei, 18, of Princeton, face up to five years in jail if convicted. Ravi is out on bail and Wei has been released on her own recognizance.
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. “It requires training and requires the formation of a school safety team, which their responsibility is to respond to the incident.”
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.