GALLOWAY TOWNSHIP — James Clementi doesn’t particularly enjoy speaking before large crowds. But he sat before more than 200 educators Wednesday at Richard Stockton College to help raise awareness of the potentially fatal results of bullying.
“It has been quite a journey,” Clementi said quietly of the more than three years that have passed since his brother, Tyler, then a Rutgers University freshman, jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate used a webcam to shoot video of him in an intimate encounter, then showed it to others.
But Clementi said what he has learned is that his brother is not an isolated case, and that young people who are bullied need support.
“Even just having one person on your side can make a difference,” he said.
Clementi was the featured speaker on the first day of a two-day anti-bullying conference at Stockton co-sponsored by the Ceceilyn Miller Institute for Leadership and Diversity in America in Bloomfield, Essex County. The event attracted educators from as far away as Florida, Connecticut and Utah.
Workshops addressed preventing and addressing bullying in all forms, from cyberbullying to the more recent issue of sports bullying.
Speaker Randy Nathan said bullying in school sports has become like concussions — something that used to be tolerated as part of the game but is now realized to be dangerous and unacceptable.
Nathan said there is an intensity in sports that is used to motivate players, but teenagers in particular don’t really understand that aggressive behaviors that might appear to be effective and even encouraged in a sports environment are not an acceptable lifestyle model.
He said hazing, intimidation, harassment and homophobia have all been integrated into sports, and people are afraid to address it. Students don’t want their parents to intervene, and parents don’t want their child to be ridiculed or benched if they do.
Marlene Snyder, of Clemson University, said cyberbullying is also more prevalent than parents realize. She said New Jersey is ahead of many states because of its anti-bullying law, but schools must also teach proper “netiquette” so that students know what is unacceptable.
“It is peer abuse,” she said. “And if you don’t stop it in school, it will just continue into the workplace.”
New Jersey’s anti-bullying law was cited several times, though not always in a positive way. Educators at the conference talked about trying to find the balance in addressing behavior without having to treat every child like a potential bully.
Judith Springer, associate director of the Miller Institute, said she believes the state law needs tweaking to give schools more flexibility. She interviewed Clementi during the workshop, and they addressed questions from the audience about the challenges of New Jersey’s law.
Clementi said the law is a powerful image that the state values anti-bullying. But, he said, in traveling around the state he has also heard about the challenges of implementing it when every incident must be investigated as potential bullying.
“It is so black and white that it may need more flexibility,” he said. “And anything that might further shame the victim is really problematic.”
Gary Vermeire, coordinator of the Safe and Supportive Schools Unit at the state Department of Education, said in his workshop that state officials are aware that there have been implementation issues, but the goal is to protect children. He said there are 16 cases before the education commissioner that could help clarify some of the legal issues.
In April the commissioner ruled against the Pittsgrove Township School District in Salem County after a parent sought the reversal of a decision by the school board that his child had bullied another student when he shoved a piece of crumpled paper down his shirt. An administrative law judge ruled, and the commissioner agreed, that there had been an ongoing conflict between the two students and it was not a case of one student bullying the other.
Vermeire reminded attendees that school boards must take action on every case, and said the state has noticed that the number of cases being acted on by schools in some districts is much higher than the number being approved by the board.
He also stressed that prevention is a part of the law and that the primary role of a School Safety Team is to improve the climate at the school.
Clementi said in his talk that young people need support in schools from peers and staff. He is especially interested in bystander issues, and how to get peers to report bullying.
“We need to take the power away from the bully and give it to everyone else,” he said.
Clementi said family members have wondered why Tyler took his own life and believe he was just too embarrassed to talk even to his own family. They have started a foundation in Tyler’s memory to open discussions and create safe places for vulnerable youth.
Clementi said Tyler had just become more open about being gay after graduating from high school, had just started college and was still very vulnerable.
“It is hard to think about what he was feeling,” Clementi said. “But it was a worst-case scenario for him. He didn’t know how to handle it. It speaks to how embarrassed he was that he didn’t talk to anyone. With social media now, bullying isn’t isolated. It’s everywhere.”
Tyler Clementi Foundation
For more information on the Tyler Clementi Foundation, visit www.tylerclementi.org
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