By Valerie Vainieri Huttle - NJ.com
New Jersey’s anti-bullying law was drafted and enacted to stop an epidemic. The law, years in the making, was not written in response to a particular tragedy, but tragedy is indeed what it seeks to prevent.
In Sunday’s Perspective section, The Star-Ledger used anecdotal cases to claim the law is not clear enough and too many incidents have been reported. Reporting means schools are finally paying attention to bullying, and any lack of clarity is a direct result of not having binding, uniform regulations issued by the state Department of Education.
Moreover, the definition of “bullying” is neither weak nor overbroad, as the newspaper suggests. It is strong enough to give school districts the power to enforce the law.
While much attention has been given to the definition allowing a single incident to constitute bullying, little has been said about the other key language in the definition that requires an incident or series of incidents to “substantially disrupt or interfere with the orderly operation of the school or the rights of other students.” The definition makes clear that whether a school is looking at an incident or a pattern, the bullying must reach such a level that it interferes with the rights of a student.
A single incident can be enough to disrupt a child’s life. It takes only one post on Facebook or Twitter to turn a middle school student’s world upside down. Should we tell the school to wait for it to happen again before responding? In criminal law we do not require a victim to be harmed two or three times before we go after the perpetrator. We follow the same rule here.
Two-and-a-half years ago, I proudly introduced New Jersey’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act, along with co-sponsors from both parties, to change the climate and culture of egregious harassment, intimidation and bullying in our schools. Our primary objective was to give school districts and parents the latitude and tools they needed to combat bullying in the education system. Our previous anti-bullying law merely encouraged districts to address it. Few districts took action and those that did were confined by the law at the time.
The new law has been in place for less than two school years and already we see results. A recent interim report by the New Jersey Anti-Bullying Task Force shows that a majority of anti-bullying specialists and coordinators agree that the law is a positive step toward preventing harassment, intimidation and bullying at their schools.
The U.S. Department of Education and nationally recognized experts have awarded the New Jersey law their highest designations. This is, in part, a result of a deliberate crafting process over the course of a year that included anti-bullying and safe-schools experts, educators and advocates, such as members of Garden State Equality.
Critics overlook the thousands of students the law has helped. They point to school districts that have increased reports of harassment, intimidation and bullying, yet overlook districts that continue to underreport due to a lack of enforcement.
Ultimately, the success of the law will come from how it is implemented. School officials must use common sense and parents must be reasonable. Not all poor behavior is bullying.
The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act is meant to hold every school district accountable for failing to address bullying, but more work remains to be done. The Anti-Bullying Task Force is looking now at concerns with implementation, such as reporting. While it continues its work, I hope the Department of Education will listen to its recommendations and issue much-needed regulations to provide clarity and statewide consistency as the law intended.