Huttle: State Anti-Bullying Law a Work in Progress

By Valerie Vainieri Huttle, The Record 

WHILE The Record’s Feb. 9 article "N.J. Anti-Bullying Law draws fresh scrutiny" makes some good points, the scrutiny given to the law is certainly not fresh but part of an ongoing effort that began five years ago with the passage of this landmark bill.

We all now can agree that the effects of harassment, intimidation and bullying, also known as HIB, can be tragic and long felt in aggressors as well as victims. It is something we had all witnessed for too long and was swept under the carpet. The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights took a stand that we are no longer going to say this complex problem cannot be addressed.

The law was intended to change the climate and culture of schools that gave rise to these widespread instances of bullying. Its implementation over the past five years has been carefully and deliberately monitored. A task force was created for the purpose of smoothing the implementation and understanding of the law by schools and it has done its work well. No one ever thought that the law alone would be an overnight solution without bumps in the road. However, the progress school districts have made over the past five years is immeasurable.

Normal schoolyard behavior

Have there been instances of bullying behavior that were confused with normal schoolyard conflict? Yes. But those instances are declining. As the Record points out, HIB investigations have dropped from 35,000 to 18,635 and confirmed cases of HIB from 12,024 to 6,664 in three short years. A greater understanding and comfort with the law and its definition is taking hold in districts. The use of the law in schools will continue to get better as the recommendations of the Anti-Bullying Task Force and Department of Education continue to roll it out. 

Among those recommendations are ones that address concerns raised in the article, chiefly the recommendation that a power imbalance should be included in the definition. Critics have said the law and its definition are too broad. However, the law is seeking to define something as broad as human behavior itself and can differ vastly from case to case. HIB, what it is, what it looks like and how we deal with it is still an emerging field. Knowing this in 2010, we designed the law to leave room for a greater understanding of this phenomenon as it develops. 

Power imbalance

Our law and its definition gives room to include power imbalance as a way that teachers, principals and others can identify bullying when another characteristic like skin color or religion might not be present.

Second, the task force has determined that as a practical matter in schools the principal should be the one to initiate the investigation of HIB, greatly decreasing the instances of erroneous reporting. Finally, in its January 2015 report, the task force recommended that the state Department of Education "provide guidance to school districts about being mindful of the importance of sensitivity when dealing with all HIB reports, but especially those that involve sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression." While we have to address HIB instances involving these characteristics to prevent greater harm to the victims, we can do so in a way that preserves that sense of privacy. 

Five years ago we were mourning victims and thinking nothing could be done to address this great problem, but today we’re talking about how to fix the secondary problems of a solution that is working. 

I am proud that New Jersey has been ahead of the curve in addressing bullying, not just in 2010 and 2011, when we passed the Anti Bullying Bill of Rights, but over the past five years and through today as we work toward the long-term goal of changing the culture and climate of schools. 

Valerie Vainieri Huttle, D-Englewood, represents the 37th District in the state Assembly.