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On Monday, the Legislature passed the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, a bipartisan initiative that will make New Jersey’s schools safer for all of our children. As the author of one of the nation’s first anti-bullying laws passed in 2002, I realized how prevalent this problem was when people began approaching up to me on the street, in the bank, and at public events thanking me for sponsoring the bill. I have since amended the law in 2007 to adapt to changing technology and the prevalence of Facebook by including cyber-bullying.
The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, the most recent update to New Jersey’s bullying statute, has been in the works for nearly ten months, and protects all students who are harassed, bullied or intimidated for any reason. The tragic death of Rutgers’ student Tyler Clementi altered the trajectory of this issue, propelling it to national significance, and now we need to take the necessary steps to make sure it never happens again.
The need for this bill was again underscored by yet another horrific bullying incident announced by the State Attorney General’s office yesterday. According to the announcement, the AG’s investigation of the Emerson school district concluded that its Board of Education violated the state’s anti-discrimination law by not addressing the continued harassment and assault of a student that lasted six years. That is simply unacceptable.
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To be fair, some districts have been proactive, effectively incorporating strategies that help to create a climate of mutual respect, where bullying is understood to be unacceptable. For instance, last Friday I met with Assemblywoman Valerie Huttle, Assemblywoman Connie Wagner, and the faculty of the East Brook Elementary School in Paramus to discuss their successful anti-bullying programs. Improving the ways in which we deal with bullying means sharing ideas, brainstorming new solutions, and working together to reach consensus. This school is a model when it comes to dealing with bullying issues, and the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights will ensure that all other schools adequately address this important issue as well.
We worked closely with leaders on both sides of the aisle and groups like the Anti-Defamation League in New Jersey, Garden State Equality, and The New Jersey Coalition for Bullying Awareness to usher this bill through the legislative process. The Senate and Assembly Education Committees both unanimously passed the bill with 47 Assembly sponsors and 28 Senate sponsors, including Senate President Steve Sweeney, Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean, Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver, and Assembly Republican Leader Alex DeCroce. As this broad based support underscores that this is not a partisan issue – it is about protecting our children from harmful and sometimes life threatening behavior.
As a recent Bergen Record editorial pointed out, we need an aggressive proposal to better identify, punish, and prevent harassment in our schools. That is exactly what the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights will do once signed into law. We are building upon the 2002 legislation and changing with the times – because the issues we faced in 2002 are different than problems we are seeing in 2010. This includes adopting important cyber-bullying preventative measures to protect our children even after the school bell rings.
The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights will set deadlines for reporting, investigating, and resolving incidents, provide the name and contact information of anti-bullying specialists on the home page of every school’s website, and strengthen suicide prevention training for teachers to include information on its relationship to bullying. Additionally, public universities will adopt student codes of conduct for handling bullying which will be distributed to every university student. We are going to be proactive in stopping bullying before it occurs, creating an environment where our children can learn and thrive. We may not completely eradicate bullying with this bill, but it will put us on the right path with long-term solutions.