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Facing a 67% rise in the number of bias crimes committed by minors in New Jersey last year, state officials unveiled a plan to study and make recommendations to address the problem.

On Wednesday, Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, who was serving as acting governor during Gov. Phil Murphy’s out-of-state vacation, signed an executive order establishing an interagency task force to tackle the problem of bias incidents among students and young adults. The order was in reaction to the publication of a report by Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal showing what law-enforcement officials said is a “rising tide of hate” in New Jersey.

“The new Interagency Task Force to Combat Youth Bias is going to help us better understand the source of the problem, so we can effectively target and educate the next generation about how to overcome hidden bias and treat each other with the dignity and respect we all deserve. Hate has no home in New Jersey,” Oliver said.

Grewal said bias incidents are defined as suspected or confirmed offenses motivated by a victim’s perceived or actual race, color, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sexual orientation, disability, gender, gender identity or gender expression.

In 2018, several bias incidents were reported in New Jersey schools, including one in which a black student-athlete from Absegami High School was the target of racial slurs by competing white students from Mainland Regional High School during a crew meet. In response to this and other incidents, the state’s Division on Civil Rights and the state’s high school sports organization joined together recently to ask administrators to double efforts to fight bigotry and racism.

Bias incidents, which had decreased in New Jersey each year from 2011 to 2016, grew statewide over 2017 to 569 in 2018, higher than any year since 2011. Of those reports, 59 arrests were made.

According to the report, in 2018, the percentage of known bias offenders who were minors increased from 29.6% to more than 46%. Overall, 105 minors were documented to be bias offenders in 2018, up from 63 the prior year.

“If we’re going to conquer hate, we need to do a better job of confronting bias among our young people, because our young people are our future,” Grewal said Wednesday during a conference call with reporters.

More than a quarter of the reported bias incidents in 2018 occurred at institutions of higher education, and nearly half of the identified offenders were minors. There were 32 reports of bias incidents in elementary and secondary schools.

“The number of bias incidents committed by and against students and minors is disturbing,” Grewal said. “In both 2017 and 2018, more bias incidents occurred on college and university campuses in New Jersey than anywhere else.”

He said the increase in incidents is partially related to a higher incidence of reporting and partially to social media, divisive political rhetoric and an uptick in hate groups on a national level.

New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education Zakiya Smith Ellis said research shows fostering a sense of belonging on campus helps keep students in college to complete their degrees.

“New Jersey is home to some of the nation’s most diverse colleges and universities. It’s one of our commitments in the state’s higher education plan that every student in New Jersey should feel safe and supported in their learning environment,” Smith Ellis said.

Lamont O. Repollet, New Jersey’s education commissioner, said the state has a commitment to establishing positive school climates.

“Schools are a microcosm of society, and educators have an important role to play in helping to prevent the spread of hate and reduce the frequency of bias crimes in our schools,” Repollet said.

The task force will provide advice and recommendations to the Offices of the Governor and the Attorney General, and to other state agencies, on strategies to reduce incidents of hate, bias and intolerance involving students and young adults.

Contact: 609-272-7251 CLowe@pressofac.com Twitter @clairelowe

Staff Writer

I began covering South Jersey in 2008 after graduating from Rowan University with a degree in journalism. I joined The Press in 2015. In 2013, I was awarded a NJPA award for feature writing as a reporter for The Current of Hamilton Township.

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