Almost a year after a state commission said New Jersey's school bullying laws should be tougher, state legislators on Monday introduced an "Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights" they said is designed to raise awareness and spur action at schools, colleges and homes in the state.
Officials at area schools said they already take the issue seriously, but any increased awareness is good, especially with the growing concern over cyberbullying that may happen outside of school.
"Bullying has become an issue we cannot deny occurs," said Northfield Community School Superintendent Janice Fipp. In 2009, the school was named a New Jersey Middle School of Character.
On Monday, Jim Jordan of reportbullying.com gave a workshop to teachers. Today, he will hold an assembly for students and a session for parents.
State Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono, D-Middlesex, a sponsor of the bill, said children today can be bullied at any time and place, either face-to-face, through hateful messages or on a cell phone.
"Our efforts today are based on the very simple belief that no child should ever be afraid of going to school," Buono said during a news conference announcing the bill in Trenton. The bill grew out of a December 2009 report by the New Jersey Commission on Bullying in Schools, which commended the state's 2002 law but recommended changes to strengthen and adapt it to 21st century issues.
The bill would require all school staff to get training in harassment, intimidation and bullying, or HIB, and require, rather than just encourage, schools to have anti-bullying programs. It would expand the school's reach to off-site bullying and require districts to give a public report on bullying to the local school board twice a year. The state Department of Education would set aside grant funds for training.
October is traditionally school violence awareness month in New Jersey. The state DOE is scheduled to release the statewide 2008-09 violence and vandalism report this week. According to the 2007-2008 report, 2,976 incidents of HIB were reported in schools that year.
But Jordan and school officials said many incidents are not reported because students are afraid of retaliation. Jordan puts a lot of emphasis on bystander influence and the idea that students, teachers or anyone who knows of bullying but chooses to ignore it is part of the problem.
"Complacent is complicit," he told Northfield teachers Monday. Allowing a child to get away with one or two incidents encourages the child to continue and even escalate. He prefers to use "target" rather than "victim" because bullying involves someone being targeted for aggressive, intentional and ongoing harassment designed to control.
That targeting, he said, is why bystanders are crucial to reporting and stopping bullying. Girls who pass along gossip are complicit in the bullying. Boys who watch another child get punched, but do nothing, encourage the bully to repeat the behavior and send the message to the target that no one wants to help.
Northfield, which also uses the Olweus anti-bullying and character education program, will set up a "bully box" where students can drop off anonymous reports, and there also will be an online reporting system they can use at home.
"It's foolish to say it doesn't happen," said Brigantine eighth-grade teacher and Student Council adviser Melissa Knoff, who is coordinating Red Ribbon Week at the school this week to focus on making good decisions. The school recently brought in a representative from the Atlantic County Prosecutor's Office to talk about online predators and cyberbullying, and in 2009, Brigantine Elementary School also was named a state School of Character.
A Northfield student survey found more than a third of students said they have been called names, teased or threatened once or twice, but not regularly. Fipp said a few students also wrote that they do not want to come to school because of teasing about how they look or dress. Fipp said the school is concentrating on the lunchroom and playground for more supervision because that seems to be where most incidents happen.
"It's a looser, less-structured period of the day," she said.
Galloway Township is instituting the Bully Busters program, and Superintendent Annette Giaquinto said one of the challenges is to differentiate between adolescent teasing and chronic bullying in developing a response. Neither is acceptable, but the reaction has to be appropriate, she said.
"You have to identify who is chronically instigating," she said, "and it can be a challenge because students don't always want to come forward."
That's why Jordan said he focuses on bystanders, making all students responsible for incidences of bullying in an effort to develop a school culture that says bullying will not be tolerated.
Asked whether bullying was a problem at his school, Northfield elementary school Principal Joseph Campisi paused, then said, "It's a tough problem when we don't know about it."
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Key points of proposal:
- All school board members, teachers and administrators, as well as school law enforcement, must get training in harassment, intimidation and bullying, or HIB.
- Requires, rather than just encourages, school districts to establish bullying-prevention programs.
- School districts must form a school safety team in each school to receive complaints, identify and address patterns of HIB, and educate the community.
- Designates the week beginning with the first Monday in October of each year as a "Week of Respect" with age-appropriate instruction focusing on preventing harassment, intimidation and bullying.
- Amends the definition of "harassment, intimidation or bullying" to specify that the "harm" could be physical or emotional.
- Eliminates the requirement that the disruption to the school be "substantial."
- Adds a conviction of "bias intimidation" to the list of crimes for which a person may be disqualified in seeking employment in a school.
- Includes harassment, intimidation and bullying in the types of conduct that may constitute good cause for suspension or expulsion.
- District policy must include responses to actions that occur off school grounds.
- A school administrator who fails to initiate or conduct an investigation of an incident is subject to discipline.
- The superintendent of schools must report all HIB incidents publicly to the board of education twice a year. The report will be used by the state DOE to grade schools and districts in their efforts to identify harassment, intimidation and bullying.
- Include HIB data in the annual state School Report Card.
- Require the addition of an anti-bullying policy and enforcement of the student code of conduct of every public college and university.