On the premise that the word “liberal” is not synonymous with “hippie” and that the word “conservative” is not the same as “uptight,” New Jersey has got to have one of the most liberal state governments in the country. As discussed in last week’s column (“Jersey Trendsetters,” 8/31), we do not shy away from government regulation as a means to address state-centric issues and improve upon existing structures, nor are we shy about the boldness of many of these regulations, superlatives in the scheme of state police powers.
Go big or go home: As of last Thursday, the “Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act,” widely viewed as the toughest anti-bullying legislation in the nation, is now officially New Jersey law. Intended to improve upon legislation made in 2002, the law more rigidly mandates the active participation of schools in the prevention and equipped response to instances of bullying in schools, and thereby holds the school legally responsible for incidents that occur.
This is a well-intentioned piece of legislation for which there is a great need across the United States. However, laws don’t fly on good will alone, and pre-existing cultural issues, an already dire lack of resources in education, and the immensely broad scope of the problem could potentially render this ostensibly dynamic provision ineffective, or even damaging in the long run.
Some highlights of the 18 pages of “required components”:
● Educators are to receive specialized training, students are to be given lessons as worked into the general curriculum, and reporting bullying is not an option, but the default.
● Every school must appoint an “anti-bullying specialist” to investigate complaints, which must be reported by the school principal within 24 hours of the incident. Said complaints must have a detailed report of the incident, and are to be made publicly accessible.
● Contact information for school and district specialists are to be made publicly accessible.
● Upon submission by the school districts to the State Education Board, schools are “graded” on their performance. These grades are to be made publicly accessible.
● Educators and administrators who do not comply with these requirements many lose their license or receive other forms of disciplinary action.
Provisions meant to seal the holes in the 2002 anti-bullying legislation are more systematic and provide consequences for unsatisfactory participation. The possibility for difficulty is fostered by the newly implemented demands being made on NJ schools, essentially left to their own devices. Money is a huge factor here, as money might be able to supply the quality resources needed for a stab at the success of this legislation. NJ does not have the education budget to sustain the implementation of a law with so many demands and no support package whatsoever.
It is no secret that NJ public schools are suffering financially, and it is proving difficult enough to provide NJ students with a standard, quality education with extracurricular programs and teachers who aren’t in constant fear for their jobs. With what money are we going to add all this in the mix? Some NJ districts have that money, like the East Hanover School District, which plans on spending $3,000 to expand anti-bullying training to substitute teachers, coaches, custodians and cafeteria aides, and some 200 school districts that invested in a $1,295 package including a 100-page manual and a DVD put together by a consulting firm. But what about the rest of the state?
Perhaps more important than money is a comprehensive plan of action delineated by the authorities who drafted the bills. Schools can pay for care packages or hire consulting firms, but it seems as though this law is leaving it to the schools to figure out with what means they are to meet these rigid requirements, creating a great potential for confusion, diffusion of already scant resources, and abuse of the system to avoid the negative consequences of failure.
The great need for “anti-bullying” education notwithstanding, a lack of applied research could cause more harm than good in this situation, which has major cultural implications and may indicate that the problem may not be the school’s so much as the way we have learned to interact with each other, a huge political problem even larger than the scope of “anti-bullying.”
It is critical that the architects of this legislation understand that people want results and but may be too egocentric to effectively participate in this legislation. Definitions of bullying and its scope will vary. Parents, absolved of responsibility, will have the grounds to blame the school no matter what side their children are on. Educators may discipline children who don’t deserve it out of fear, and may slack in their other duties to meet requirements. The severity of the bullying that continues may increase or change in frightening ways, resilient and acidic in an environment that means to eradicate it.
While a bit crude, I believe that very simple idea, if effectively instilled, could help with the largely cultural bullying issues that plague NJ:
“Bullying” in the adult world equates to crimes of harassment, assault, extortion and other federally punishable offenses. To witness quantifiable acts of harassment with inaction is criminal negligence. To falsely accuse another of harassment is both despicable and punishable by law in some cases. In real life, hurting others does not do much except set a person up for a habit of dysfunctional human interactions, and people died in The Sopranos for a reason.
For what it’s worth, NJ might have been the best place for these reforms to start.