Special report: Bullying: Taunts, Texts, Torment
Their mission isn’t easy: Put a program in place in less than six months with no money and little training. It must address a complicated problem that has no sure-fire solution and, if it isn’t successful, disciplinary action may be taken.
No wonder more than 300 teachers, counselors, school administrators and a handful of parents packed a seminar Friday at Ramapo College for tips and guidance on how to effectively deal with bullying in the schools.
Program note: Tune in to The Record’s television partner, Verizon’s FiOS1 News, for a two-hour special report on bullying Monday 4/4 @ 6pm.
They were looking for legal, law enforcement, and academic advice on how to get anti-bullying programs up and running by the fall, as mandated by law.
“We’re all in panic mode because we have to start this by September,” said Cindy Sherman, a guidance counselor in Bloomfield High School. “It was really helpful to hear all the experts explain the various parts of this law.”
The legislation signed into law in January requires each school have a program, complete with an anti-bullying specialist to lead the school’s efforts to prohibit harassment, intimidation and bullying of any kind. School employees who witness a bullying incident and fail to act in a timely manner face disciplinary action by their district.
Nearly a dozen specialists were on hand to address the crowd, including Bergen County Prosecutor John Molinelli, Passaic County Sheriff Richard Berdnik, David Nash, attorney for the New Jersey Principal and Supervisors Association, Steven Goldstein, head of Garden State Equality, Richard Guerry, a cyberbullying expert and several educators.
A common theme seemed to emerge — teachers are on the front lines and connections to students are the key to reducing bullying. If students know they have someone to go to if they are bullied or if they see a situation that makes them uncomfortable, their reporting will ultimately make administrators aware of what problems exist in their school and how best to deal with them.
Dorene Zacher, a counselor at New Milford High School, has been tapped as her school’s anti-bullying specialist. She offered some tips that she said seem to be working in her district.
Boxes have been put around the school where students can anonymously report on bullying incidents they’ve witnessed. Twenty-three students were selected and then trained to help with conflict resolution and be “46 extra eyes” in the school. These students often step in and recommend targeted teens go and talk with Zacher.
“This is a tough law and we have to educate these kids that they may get in trouble for something next year that they didn’t this year,” Zacher said. “But I think we really have to give kids a voice in all this.”
The seminar, sponsored by a number of organizations including North Jersey Media Group, which owns The Record, and Verizon Fios, spotlighted the onus schools face in tackling the problem, which extends into cyberspace. The new law requires school administrators take action when cyberbullying — sending nasty or threatening messages via text or social networking sites — creates a hostile school environment for a student.
“Too many people think what they are putting online is anonymous but that is not true,” said Guerry, executive director of the Institute for Responsible Online and Cellphone Communication. “Lawsuits have made Google and others turn over their records to show who is behind those messages. We need to teach our students that posting these messages can have long-term effects on them.”
Though many audience members said they appreciated learning the intricacies of the law, some said they would like assistance with the bigger issue: When is someone being bullied and when is it just two kids not getting along?
“I teach third grade and I’ve tried talking to my kids about bullying,” said Mary Craccos, from Lindbergh School in Palisades Park. “Now whenever one kid bumps into another one, I hear, ‘He’s bullying me.’ I truly don’t think any one kid is being bullied, but it would be nice to have some materials or videos that are age-appropriate that we can use.”
Kathleen Kelly, a guidance counselor at the Garrett Morgan Academy in Paterson, has the same questions about older students.
“When you see a couple of boys pushing each other around, do you say one is bullying the other? When you’re just visually looking at something and don’t know the whole story, where is the line between kids fooling around and one being bullied?”