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Bullying law puts New Jersey schools on spot

While many parents and educators welcome efforts to curb bullying on campus and online, some school officials in New Jersey say the new law reaches much too far.
/ Source: The New York Times

Under a new state law in New Jersey, lunch-line bullies in the East Hanover schools can be reported to the police by their classmates this fall through anonymous tips to the Crimestoppers hot line.

In Elizabeth, children, including kindergartners, will spend six class periods learning, among other things, the difference between telling and tattling.

And at North Hunterdon High School, students will be told that there is no such thing as an innocent bystander when it comes to bullying: if they see it, they have a responsibility to try to stop it.

But while many parents and educators welcome the efforts to curb bullying both on campus and online, some superintendents and school board members across New Jersey say the new law, which takes effect Sept. 1, reaches much too far, and complain that they have been given no additional resources to meet its mandates.

The law, known as the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, is considered the toughest legislation against bullying in the nation. Propelled by public outcry over the suicide of a Rutgers University freshman, Tyler Clementi, nearly a year ago, it demands that all public schools adopt comprehensive antibullying policies (there are 18 pages of “required components”), increase staff training and adhere to tight deadlines for reporting episodes.

Each school must designate an antibullying specialist to investigate complaints; each district must, in turn, have an antibullying coordinator; and the State Education Department will evaluate every effort, posting grades on its Web site. Superintendents said that educators who failed to comply could lose their licenses.

“I think this has gone well overboard,” Richard G. Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, said. “Now we have to police the community 24 hours a day. Where are the people and the resources to do this?”

In most cases, schools are tapping guidance counselors and social workers as the new antibullying specialists, raising questions of whether they have the time or experience to look into every complaint of harassment or intimidation and write the detailed reports required. Some administrators are also worried that making schools legally responsible for bullying on a wider scale will lead to more complaints and open the door to lawsuits from students and parents dissatisfied with the outcome.

But supporters of the law say that schools need to do more as conflicts spread from cafeterias and corridors to social media sites, magnifying the effects and making them much harder to shut down. Mr. Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his college roommate secretly used a webcam to capture an intimate encounter between Mr. Clementi and another man and stream it over the Internet, according to the police.

“It’s not the traditional bullying: the big kid in the schoolyard saying, ‘You’re going to do what I say,’ ” Richard Bergacs, an assistant principal at North Hunterdon High, said.

Dr. Bergacs, who investigates half a dozen complaints of bullying each month, said most involved both comments on the Internet and face-to-face confrontations on campus. “It’s gossip, innuendo, rumors — and people getting mad about it,” he said.

This summer, thousands of school employees attended training sessions on the new law; more than 200 districts have snapped up a $1,295 package put together by a consulting firm that includes a 100-page manual and a DVD.

At a three-hour workshop this month, Philip W. Nicastro, vice president of the firm, Strauss Esmay Associates, tried to reassure a group of newly named antibullying specialists and coordinators gathered in a darkened auditorium at Bridgewater-Raritan High School.

“I know many of you came in here saying, ‘Holy cow, I’m going to be dealing with 10 reports a day because everything is bullying,’ ” he told the audience, some of whom laughed nervously.

Afterward, Meg Duffy, a counselor at the Hillside Intermediate School in Bridgewater, acknowledged that the new law was “a little overwhelming.” She said cyberbullying increased at her school last year, with students texting or posting mean messages about classmates.

The law also requires districts to appoint a safety team at each school, made up of teachers, staff members and parents, to review complaints. It orders principals to begin an investigation within one school day of a bullying episode, and superintendents to provide reports to Trenton twice a year detailing all episodes. Statewide, there were 2,846 such reports in 2008-9, the most recent year for which a total was available.

In the East Hanover district, the new partnership with Crimestoppers, a program of the Morris County sheriff’s office, is intended to make reporting easier, but it also ups the ante by involving law enforcement rather than resolving issues in the principal’s office. Crimestoppers will accept anonymous text messages, calls or tips to its Web site, then forward the information to school and local police officials.

The district is also spending $3,000 to expand antibullying training to most of its staff, including substitute teachers, coaches, custodians and cafeteria aides. It is also planning its first Community Night of Respect for students and parents in October.

“We really want to be able to implement this new law and achieve results,” the district’s superintendent, Joseph L. Ricca, said, though he added that the law’s “sheer scope may prove to be a bit unwieldy and may require some practical refinement.”

In Elizabeth, antibullying efforts will start in the classroom, with a series of posters and programs, including role-playing exercises. In one lesson, students will study pictures of children’s faces and talk about the emotions expressed (annoyance, disappointment), while in another, they will practice saying phrases like “I am angry.”

“The whole push is to incorporate the antibullying process into the culture,” Lucila Hernandez, a school psychologist, said. “We’re empowering children to use the term ‘bullying’ and to speak up for themselves and for others.”

Even districts that have long made antibullying programs a priority are preparing to step up their efforts, in response to the greater reporting demands. “This gives a definite timeline,” the Westfield superintendent, Margaret Dolan, said, noting the new one-day requirement. “Before, our rule was you need to do it as quickly as possible.”

But Dr. Dolan cautioned that an unintended consequence of the new law could be that students, or their parents, will find it easier to label minor squabbles bullying than to find ways to work out their differences.

“Kids have to learn to deal with conflict,” she said. “What a shame if they don’t know how to effectively interact with their peers when they have a disagreement.”

This article, "," first appeared in The New York times.