There has certainly been no lack of media attention and public debate on New Jersey education over the past few months. There was the contentious budget battle between Governor Christie and the state’s teachers union, the loss of $400 million in critical Race to the Top funds and the firing of Education Commissioner Bret Schundler.
Recently, Governor Christie joined Mayor Corey Booker on the Oprah Winfrey show to receive a $100 million grant for Newark public schools from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. And now the Governor announced his decision to provide charter schools with $30 million in federally subsidized construction bonds.
While these events have grabbed headlines, sparked debate and even caused some soul searching over the future of our state’s education system, it matters little to the tormented, bullied children in our schools.
The truth is that every day there is a student in an elementary or high school or even a college or university that you probably know, who feels a sense of fear and emotional dread every time he or she steps foot into the school building. The impact on many of these children cannot be measured. For some, it will mean lower academic performance at school, putting them a step behind for the rest of their lives. For others, it will mean something unspeakably worse.
New Jersey’s first anti-bullying law was passed in 2002 and followed up with a cyber bullying law in 2007. For nearly a decade our state has been a leader in the fight against the epidemic of bullying. However, tragedies continuing to occur at the hands of harassment, bullying, and intimidation are not a sign that our laws do not work, but rather that our laws must go further.
Therefore I have been working since January to create an Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights focused on raising awareness of bullying, harassment, and intimidation in schools. This comprehensive legislation has such broad support that 43 sponsors signed onto the bill in the Assembly when it was recently introduced, signaling that we already have more than the 41 votes needed to move this bill out of our house.
The legislation is designed to prevent instances of abuse, provide school administrators with the tools they need to respond in a timely and effective manner, and to ensure that teachers, administrators, and school districts are held accountable for the way bullying is reported and handled.
The legislation is a broad initiative to create a standardized way to identify and investigate incidences of bullying and to train teachers, administrators and school board members in the identification and prevention techniques. The measure creates school safety teams that would involve a cross section of the school and give ownership of the problem of bullying to the entire school community.
Additionally, the bill provides for annual reporting on bullying instances from schools and districts to be passed up directly to the Commissioner of Education and it grades each school on how it handles bullying, harassment and intimidation. It also extends bullying protections to off school grounds and addresses college and university students.
This legislation is filled with strong yet practical and well thought out measures like the ones I just mentioned. What we are truly endeavoring to do is change the culture of our schools from one that turns a blind eye towards bullying to one that turns every keenly-focused eye toward it.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said that, “It may be true that morality cannot be legislated, but behavior can be regulated.” It is through this regulation of behavior that we can change the cycle of bullying and prevent the long-term damage it is shown to cause on both the bully and the victim. By giving schools the tools they need to successfully prevent and respond to incidents of bullying and giving communities the ability to hold school districts and the state education system accountable, the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights sends the message that behavior aimed at harassing, intimidating, or bullying another student will not be tolerated.
Assemblywoman Vainieri Huttle is the lead sponsor of the “Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights” which was introduced in the Assembly on Monday, October 25.