New Jersey lawmakers this week introduced the public to legislation that would toughen school policies toward bullying, in an effort to prevent tragedies like last month’s suicide by a Rutgers student.
Deemed the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, the legislation would empower educators to better report and respond to bullying incidents, Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37), one of the bill’s prime sponsors, told The Jewish Standard Wednesday. The bill is not, she emphasized, a response to Tyler Clementi’s suicide, as it has been in the works since January.
“It’s all about awareness, prevention, and training,” she said. “We need to change the culture of kids and we need to create a new school culture.”
New Jersey passed anti-bullying legislation in 2002 and 2007.
“Unfortunately, now the incidents of bullying [here] are higher than in the rest of the United States because the laws need to go further,” Vainieri Huttle said.
The legislation is a follow-up to a December report from the New Jersey Commission on Bullying in the Schools, a taskforce formed in 2007.
“The tragedy at Rutgers didn’t affect our timetable, but I think it will help sway anyone who might … be on the fence,” said Etzion Neuer, director of New Jersey’s Anti-Defamation League office and a member of the commission.
Through the last 10 years, he said, the public’s perception of bullying has shifted away from viewing it as part of childhood.
“It’s taken years of persistence and advocacy, and now it’s the unanimous consensus that schools, parents, and administrators can change the culture,” he said.
The bill would regulate only public schools and have no bearing on the area’s private yeshivas. Day-school administrators, however, welcomed the legislation. Rabbi Ellen Bernhardt, head of Gerrard Berman Day School, Solomon Schechter of North Jersey in Oakland, said she was “thrilled” by the news. Gerrard Berman has a zero-tolerance anti-bullying policy, and begins its education early, so there have not been any incidents at the school, she said.
“We deal with it from a Jewish perspective as well as from a secular perspective,” Bernhardt added. “We talk about how every person is created in God’s image and should be treated with respect.”
Rabbi John Krug, dean of student life and welfare at The Frisch School in Paramus and a clinical psychologist, lamented the need for such a law.
“It is a sad reflection on society when legislation has to step in and mandate something that should be part and parcel of the development of human beings in general,” he said.
Each year, Frisch seniors, with training from faculty, work with the freshmen on bullying issues. Like Gerrard Berman, Frisch has a zero-tolerance policy and Krug said he knows of fewer than a handful of cases in the school each year.
The Rutgers tragedy pushed the bullying issue to the forefront, he said, but it also highlighted the changing role of technology in social interaction.
“The world does not yet know how to cope with this new universe of technology and media, and all the rules that have governed human behavior until now are being redefined,” he said.
The bill has already garnered more than 40 bipartisan cosponsors in the Assembly. It will head to the Senate after the November elections.
“I don’t think we’re going to completely solve the problems of bullying,” Neuer said, “but parents and schools are going to find that bullying and harassment and intimidation will become fringe behaviors.”