This past week I have spoken with the Deputy Speaker from the NJ Assembly, multiple members of NJ School Boards, our own District HIB Specialist and close to five hundred fourteen year olds about bullying and the new New Jersey Law. At the end of it all, I have to wonder...WHAT were they thinking?
Yes, New Jersey has the "toughest" law in the country? Does that make it the best? Although the legislature was in the process prior to Tyler Clemente’s suicide, his death prompted an emotional and hasty reworking of the bill which meant that districts didn’t have time to fully create a comprehensive, educationally sound plan of action, nonetheless to try and implement the same. Districts scrambled to do what so often students are accused of – doing the minimum amount of effort to “get the passing grade.”However, in this case, no district is sure how the grading system will work. Will districts be penalized for reporting incidents by being given a poor grade? In which case, will that not drive the issue further underground?
In addition, the districts had to quickly implement some sort of professional development for their staff, administration and community with no time to properly research and fund such development. The legal community made a financial windfall by offering bullying workshops focusing on the legal ramifications of the law and districts grabbed what they could. In the past few months, everyone has become a bully “expert” resulting in massive amounts of companies selling their “solution” to bullying. Again, the lack of time to do proper due diligence on what is effective is hurting the districts’ ability to make smart decisions.
And let's talk about the language of the bill... again WHAT were they thinking? Let's not get into the freedom of speech aspect... oh wait, let's...As Adam Cohen, from Yale Law mentions,
"The law will also, necessarily, thrust school officials into the tricky area of policing student expression, including statements made off campus. This puts schools in a bit of a bind: in several recent rulings, federal courts have reminded schools that they must respect the free-speech rights of their students, even when that speech is harsh or provocative. New Jersey’s law pushes schools in the opposite direction, requiring them to monitor and police certain kinds of speech.”
So now schools are in the unenviable positions of trying to monitor behavior off campus. Most of us are aware that students don't always "hang" with kids from their own district after hours, which begs the question -- when students interact from multiple districts – who is responsible for what? I was told of one incident involving students from multiple districts, off campus and which was reported to multiple administrations. Following up and documenting the incident, as well as deciding what actions to take, how to best handle the situation and who had the ultimate responsibility is something the law fails to take into account.
And let's take a moment to figure out how New Jersey defines bullying ... or doesn't. Again, what WERE they thinking? The Supreme Court clearly defined harassment and intimidation in two separate cases previously earlier in the decade.
"In Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education(1999), the Supreme Court defined peer-on-peer harassment in the educational context as conduct that is "so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive, and that so undermines and detracts from the victims' educational experience, that the victim-students are effectively denied equal access to an institution's resources and opportunities. With regard to intimidation, in Virginia v. Black(2003), the Court defined intimidation as a "type of true threat, where a speaker directs a threat to a person or group of persons with the intent of placing the victim in fear of bodily harm or death."
New Jersey Law vaguely states all student speech that "is reasonably perceived as being motivated either by any actual or perceived characteristic" and that "a reasonable person should know" will "have the effect of ... emotionally harming a student" or "placing a student in reasonable fear of ... emotional harm," is bullying. THEREFORE, New Jersey is mandating that students appraise the sensibilities and frailties of their fellow students before speaking.
HOW does this make sense? Why not stick to the preciseness of language previously developed? Please, don't misunderstand me. I am an advocate of the victim. I am a HUGE advocate of culture change and of education for our young people to work on PREVENTING bullying from starting in the first place through empathy and awareness. However, this bill is reactive in nature (punishing the bully after the fact); provides no funding for training or development; and is impossibly vague. The intention is good but the bill is poorly written and developed. It desperately needs a clarification and a proper timeline to encourage districts to implement real educational change by promoting awareness, safety, culture change, attitudinal change and student dialogue. Like the civil rights movement -- real change comes through education not through a penal system.
Just my two cents worth. I'm sure many will disagree. But as one of my students so aptly said... This bill is a house of cards, but with no foundation and no money to pay the mortgage.