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N.J. weighs new anti-bullying laws after Rutgers suicide

New Jersey lawmakers have introduced a bill to toughen the state's anti-bullying laws after the widely publicized suicide of a Rutgers University student.
Image: Barbara Buono, David Zimmer
David Zimmer holds up a copy of a photograph with the words, "Gay Must Die" that he said his son took at Ridgewood High School in Ridgewood, N.J. Zimmer joined a gathering Monday in Trenton to promote a bill that legislators introduced to toughen the state's anti-bullying laws. At left is state Sen. Barbara Buono, D-Edison.Mel Evans / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

New Jersey lawmakers introduced an "anti-bullying bill of rights" Monday that one advocate said would be the toughest state law of its kind in the nation, a proposal that follows the widely publicized suicide of a Rutgers University student who was humiliated online.

The proposal was introduced by a bipartisan group of legislators and advocates and seeks to augment laws New Jersey passed eight years ago. It would require anti-bullying programs in public K-12 schools and language in college codes of conduct to address bullying.

State Sen. Barbara Buono, a Democrat from Metuchen who was one of the main sponsors of the 2002 law, said she has learned since then how prevalent bullying is as parents of tormented children have called her office. The original law only encouraged anti-bullying programs and wasn't doing enough, she said.

"It's approaching 2011, and it's unfortunate that we're legislating things like this," said State Sen. President Stephen Sweeney, a Democrat from West Deptford.

Nearly every state now has some kind of law seeking to prevent or deal with bullying in school. Such laws began appearing after two students believed to be seeking revenge for being bullied killed 13 people and themselves at Colorado's Columbine High School in 1999.

The proposed New Jersey legislation, though it's been months in the making, was introduced after a nationwide wave of suicides by teenagers who were tormented because it was believed they were gay.

The most visible was last month in New Jersey when 18-year-old Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge into the Hudson River after his roommate allegedly secretly webcast Clementi's dorm-room tryst with a man. The roommate and another student are charged with invasion of privacy, and authorities are considering whether a hate-crime charge is merited.

In a news conference Monday organized in part by Garden State Equality, the state's biggest gay rights group, parents of gay teens who face bullying told heartfelt stories.

They included David Zimmer, of Ridgewood, who said his 16-year-old son is taking most of his classes online rather than face the students who call him "fat faggot" and the school officials he said haven't always done enough about it.

It's not just gay students who are targeted.

Stella Serpa, now 37, an Army veteran and administrative caregiver at Columbia University Medical Center in New York, recalled how she was tormented as a child because her mom was poor, then as a high school student for her thick glasses and thin physique. Twenty years later, her eyes welled up as she remembered hearing other girls call her "surfboard" and throw their bras at her in the locker room.

The memories of those years have been strong lately.

"I come across the George Washington Bridge every day on my commute," said Serpa, who lives in Fort Lee. "And to think of a young man standing out there on that bridge on the brink of emotional helplessness and taking a dive into the Hudson, yeah, it has had an impact on me."

Serpa said the only thing that kept her going as a teen was a belief that she could get into college and lead a better life.

The bill's provisions include requiring public school staff to be trained in suicide prevention and how to deal with harassment, intimidation and bullying.

Bullying prevention programs would be required of schools. Currently, most New Jersey schools have them, but they are only encouraged — not required. Schools would have to form safety teams that would shape policies and review how bullying is handled.

Even public colleges and universities would be affected by a requirement for an anti-bullying policy and enforcement mechanism in student-conduct codes.

State Sen. Diane Allen, a Republican from Edgewater Park, said one important feature is that school websites would have to clarify who's in charge of the bullying policies. Right now, she said, it can be hard for parents to determine that.

Michael Drewniak, a spokesman for Gov. Chris Christie, said the administration would look at the bill if it's passed — and given its bipartisan sponsors, that seems likely. While Christie hasn't commented on the bill, he did express sympathy to Clementi's parents and anger over the circumstances of the suicide.