Legislation that would empower New Jersey educators to clamp down on bullying in their schools took another step forward in the Legislature in Trenton this week.
After a day of powerful testimonies from bullying victims and families, the bill, dubbed the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, passed out of education committees in the Senate and Assembly on Monday and is headed for full votes in both bodies as early as next week. Because of its broad bipartisan support, the bill’s backers expect it to pass easily.
“We’re absolutely thrilled that it passed through the education committees,” said Etzion Neuer, director of New Jersey’s office of the Anti-Defamation League, which played a key role in arranging the testimonies earlier this week with Garden State Equality, the state’s largest gay-rights organization. “We’re now looking forward to a full vote. I’m quite optimistic that the bill will be signed with little to no opposition.”
Neuer was a member of the New Jersey Commission on Bullying in the Schools, whose 2009 report provided the impetus for the new legislation.
Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37), one of the bill’s primary sponsors in the Assembly, praised the ADL and Garden State Equality for their work in demonstrating the need for the bill.
“They’ve given us great insight into what we could do. Both groups offered tremendous help and assistance,” she said.
Calls to Garden State Equality were not returned by press time.
The legislation is not a panacea for the problem of bullying, Neuer told The Jewish Standard. But, while acknowledging that several schools already handle the issue well, he said he was hopeful that the bill would fix some of the problems in how many schools deal with bullying.
“Many of us can remember being bullied or mistreated in our own school lives,” said Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37), one of the bill’s primary sponsors in the Senate. “When you hear the testimony of adults who’ve grown up and still can’t talk about it without becoming teary-eyed – the testimony was certainly heartfelt.”
While bullying has been in the news because of the recent suicide of gay Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, bullying is an across-the-board problem, Weinberg said.
“It’s against all populations – [any] kid who might just be a little different,” she said. “It’s apparently more widespread than any of us knew. When it’s carried to a real extreme, it has very serious consequences.”
Bullying is not just an issue in the public schools. Many of the area’s Jewish day schools have zero-tolerance policies on bullying. Because of the separation between state and religion, however, the government cannot enforce anti-bullying legislation in the private schools, Vainieri Huttle said.
To address this issue, language has been added that non-public schools are encouraged to comply with the bill’s provisions. Another amendment in the bill prevents the legislation from prohibiting students in faith-based schools from freely practicing their faiths.
“We wanted to cover all aspects to make sure they can practice their faith freely and encourage them to adopt these provisions,” Vainieri Huttle said.
If the bill passes both houses as expected next week, it then falls on Gov. Chris Christie to sign it into law. Vainieri Huttle was optimistic that schools could begin implementing changes as early as September 2011.
“Gov. Christie is not just a leader of New Jersey,” Neuer said. “He’s also a dad. He’s a person who has demonstrated empathy for victims before and I think he’s going to see that this bill enjoys tremendous support from young and old, rich and poor, Republican and Democrat, and he’ll support it in some fashion.”
Neuer praised Vainieri Huttle for her work in pushing the bill and getting broad bipartisan support for it.
“When all is said and done, thanks to the assemblywoman’s initiatives, New Jersey will have one of the most comprehensive [anti-]bullying laws on the books,” he said.
|The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights calls for:
“¢ Deadlines for bullying incidents to be reported, investigated, and resolved
“¢ Anti-bullying training of school personnel without creating new government entities or increasing taxes
“¢ Every school’s website would post the name and contact info of an anti-bullying specialist
“¢ Grading of each school on its safety, which would be posted on the schools’ websites
“¢ Strengthening suicide prevention training for teachers to include the relationship between bullying and suicide
“¢ Requiring public universities to prohibit bullying and create anti-bullying rules and procedures
Josh Lipowsky can be reached at Josh@jewishmediagroup.com