Anti-bullying events at N.J. schools - since 2011, it's the law

Author Staci Schwartz reads her book to third graders at South Valley in Moorestown . CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Author Staci Schwartz reads her book to third graders at South Valley in Moorestown . CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Posted: October 05, 2012

At Moorestown's South Valley Elementary School, third graders listened Wednesday to author Staci Schwartz read from her new book about a misbehaving goat named Billy who picks on other "kids."

Earlier this week, in Washington Township, Bells Elementary students made new friends, worked on their manners, and helped out grown-ups.

In schools throughout the region, assemblies have been scheduled, posters made, and discussions held, all on a central theme: Bullying is out and respect in.

This is the second annual Week of Respect for New Jersey children. All public districts and charter schools are required to provide age-appropriate instruction aimed at preventing harassment, intimidation, and bullying.

The week is but one aspect of the state's far-reaching Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights. Signed into law in early 2011 by Gov. Christie - not long after the suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, whose roommate used a webcam to watch him kiss another man - the measure has been called one of the strongest of its kind in the nation.

In addition to requiring education, the law defines bullying and specifies how suspected incidents are to be investigated. It also requires instances of harassment, intimidation, and bullying to be reported to the state.

The impact of the law is being accessed. A task force appointed to look into its implementation, offer districts guidance, and make recommendations to the Legislature has met three times.

"We're still in our getting-information mode," said Patricia Wright, chair of the task force and director of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association.

According to the state's annual school violence and vandalism report, released Tuesday, there were 12,024 incidents of harassment, intimidation, and bullying in the 2011-12 academic year.

The district-by-district tabulation, for the first full reporting period since the law was signed, will be the baseline for future years.

Among educators and others, the perception is that numbers may be on the high side, due to zealous reporting in the new category. But that's better than the alternative, say anti-bullying advocates, though some districts are suspected of undercounting.

"Reporting has gone up, and that's a good thing," said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D., Bergen), a prime sponsor of the bill. "Reporting is key."

The perception is widespread that the law has made people better educated about bullying and more alert to instances of it.

"It has heightened our awareness, and the kids' and the parents'," said Mary Fitzgerald, principal of Hillside Elementary School in Mount Laurel.

Yet issues have been raised about the measure. In January, the New Jersey Council on Local Mandates, acting on a complaint from education officials in Allamuchy Township, Warren County, declared the law an unconstitutional unfunded mandate unless the Legislature provided money to implement it.

Subsequent legislation made $1 million available, and more than 370 districts put in for the money for things such as staff training, assemblies, and teacher stipends for program management. But funding fell far short of what was spent, according to a survey by the New Jersey School Boards Association.

This school year brought no new state funding for anti-bullying efforts, noted Lynne Strickland, director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools.

"It would be very helpful," Strickland said, "if there was state support in this."

An association survey of district superintendents showed that fulfilling requirements of the law cut into time spent on other activities.

Sixty-one percent reported reduced time spent on antitobacco and drug-awareness counseling. More than 48 percent said it led to reduced interaction with students, parents, and the community. Instruction, curriculum development, planning, and career and college counseling also were affected, the respondents said.

"There is a lot of time and resources put into the investigating" of alleged incidents, said Rafe Vecere, anti-bullying coordinator for the Burlington Township district.

"The upside," he said, "is it definitely has raised awareness with the students. The students are more apt to report something. The staff is more apt to report."

The New Jersey Commission on Holocaust Education was a community sponsor of Schwartz's reading at South Valley and of a teacher-development program at the school, also Wednesday. Commission executive director Paul B. Winkler said legislation such as the anti-bullying law could have far-reaching results.

"Bullying can lead to the next level of segregation, isolation, hate speech, and, eventually, to genocide," Winkler said. "If we can attack it early, we can prevent [that] later on."


Contact Rita Giordano at 856-779-3841 or rgiordano@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @ritagiordano.

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