Nothing vague about N.J. being the 1st to tackle bullying

Nothing vague about N.J. being the 1st to tackle bullying | Opinion 

By Valerie Vainieri Huttle - Star Ledger Guest Columnist 

The Feb. 4 Star-Ledger editorial "Will New Jersey finally take the time to fix its broken bullying law?" had a misleading headline, as well as some missing facts.

In January 2011, the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights was passed by the Legislature, signed by Gov. Chris Christie and became effective at the beginning of the 2011-2012 school year. At the time, it was widely recognized as the strongest anti-bullying law in the nation.

In 2012, the Anti-Bullying Task Force was created to help oversee the implementation of the law in school districts and to provide guidance and clarification toward this goal. As part of their work, the task force tackled the definition of Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying (HIB).

The definition of HIB in the law is broad for two reasons. First it seeks to define something that is as broad as human behavior itself and can differ vastly from case-to-case.  Secondly, HIB – how we understand what it is, what it looks like and how we deal with it — is still an emerging field.

Part of that emerging understanding is the power imbalance of bullying.

Not everyone defines HIB to include a power imbalance, but it is a recurrent theme throughout the study of bullying. 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.

That is what the task force recommended and what I support, but it intentionally stops short of the editorial's call for a change of the definition. The definition is flexible enough to adapt itself.

What the editorial failed to grasp is that you cannot take a complex behavior that manifests itself in tens of thousands of different ways, a behavior that at times we don't fully understand, and wrap a tight definition around it. It just doesn't work that way. 

Have there been instances where HIB has been confused with normal school yard conflict?  Yes.

But those instances are declining as a greater understanding and comfort with the law and definition takes hold in districts. And the use of the law in schools will continue to get better as the recommendations of the Task Force and Department of Education continue to roll it out. 

The effects of 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.

No one ever thought that it would be an overnight solution without bumps in the road, but the progress we have made over the past five years is immeasurable.

I am proud that New Jersey has been ahead of the curve in addressing bullying, but smart enough to create a law that leaves room for a greater understanding of this phenomenon.

Calling the law's definition of bullying "vague" misses the point.  Perhaps the headline should have read, "New Jersey First to Take the Time to Fix Bullying!"                                                                               

Valerie Vaneiri-Huttle (D-Bergen) is a New Jersey state Assemblywoman. 

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