Financial Slavery

Saturday, November 19, 2011

New Jersey Anti-Bullying Law and the Reality of Implementation...i.e. What WERE They Thinking?

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.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Week Two in Our Year of Respect

Week Two has commenced with the anti-bullying project and our Year of Respect.  It has been interesting to see what the students have retained so far and to see what stereotypes they hold.  We started with a simple discussion of what they've noticed in their community since we last spoke.  I asked them what, if anything, they noticed about bullying in our school, on the busses, in the community.  Many mentioned an ongoing story that we have airing on WANT TV (our school announcement and news television program).  The story is called "Freshman Frenzy" and concerns a freshman who can't find his classroom (our school is very large).  Along the way to trying to find his room, he meets a variety of characters, one of whom bullies him.  The students mentioned the fact that this young character was being bullied on WANT TV.  (The story hasn't yet been resolved.) 

They noticed some posters in the halls.  And many spoke of a fight that had broken out in the cafeteria earlier in the week.  That was a big topic of discussion.  When I brought up the fact that by the end of the year, I was hoping they would be more aware of what was occurring around them; they would be more aware of words coming out of their mouths; they would be more cognizant of their community as a whole because they were going to be in this community for the next FOUR years -- they seemed stunned by the realization.  Four years!  That's forever.  I don't think it had occurred to them.

We then moved on to the human barometer game which provoked a lot of lively discussion and some out and out contention.  Especially when it came to issues like are men more likely to bully than women and whether poor are more prone to violent acts than people with money.  They were very passionate about their views.  Interestingly, the girls felt they were far more viscious than the boys.  The boys persisted with a view that girls were "sensitive" and more "delicate," while boys were more prone to physical altercations.  Girls brought up the fact that many physical fights are girl on girl and include hair pulling, scratching and slapping.  They also mentioned that girls are viscious with their verbal attacks while boys are more likely to let it roll off their backs.  It was interesting to see the positions from each side and to see them try to articulate why they perceived one gender as more aggressive than another.  There was one group that stood out as being different than the rest of the students.  Our ESL students (primarily Hispanic but some African) were also divided by gender but in what we would consider in a more traditional sense.  The girls spoke of how boys considered all things possessions, including their girlfriends, and that through a sense of bravado they would sometimes use physical force to impose their rules or opinions.  The boys spoke of how girls were delicate and boys weren't "allowed" to hit them but girls were allowed to hit each other and boys.  Plus girls were "more prone to drama" than boys.  Their gender divide was the most pronounced of all groups.

When we spoke of the economic divide, the debate grew heated and intense.  Some students were very committed and intense in their belief that money and power corrupts...absolutely.  That the more money people get, the more they want and they'll do ANYTHING to do get what they want.  Since they have money and power, they believe they can buy their way out of the situation.  Others felt that although people with money may be corrupt, they wouldn't resort to violence, but rather theft and extortion (i.e. ponsy schemes) to achieve their goals.  Violence wasn't necessary in their world.  Students were incensed by the thought that this didn't qualify as "violence," which necessitated a discussion about how to define the word.  Some felt it was any act that induced pain and suffering, where others felt there must be physical aggression involved.  The students who felt the poor were more likely to commit acts of violence felt that desperate times called for desperate measures... ergo, since poor people needed things -- food, money, shelter -- they would resort to anything to achieve their means.  This was a hotly debated argument.  One student asked me, "which answer is right?"  I think he was a bit frustrated to discover...that I wouldn't give him statistics to back one opinion.  The point of the discussion was to explore where the student stood and to listen to opposing views.  It is always fascinating for me to hear how students justify their beliefs.  I heard that "rich people lie better," "poor people are maladjusted and rich people are insecure."

We moved onto a bullying quiz, which exposed many stereotypes young people held.  For example, most felt that bullies were misunderstood, unhappy, insecure individuals who were just "lashing out."  When they heard that statistically, most bullies were confident, secure with a core group of friends, it puzzled and I think frustrated them.  We need to feel there is a reason behind people's actions.  But this quote from a young man who has participated in bullying gives a lot of justification:

"As the bully, it's different.  It's's power.  It's the greatest high you can feel.  Sure you feel bad after, but the rush.  It's enough to drive anyone to any lengths.  The high it gives you just transforms you.  It becomes the only drive you need to get through.  It's a twisted and disturbed high, but nothing can beat those moments."
We continued to tackle the stereotypes and the students had some really wonderful moments as they argued, debated, discussed and pondered the issues.  They questioned me; they questioned each other; and they questioned themselves.  This is the groundwork I think we need to lay in order to go forward and start to create more empathy for victims and a safer environment to stand up and say, "it's not cool to hassle that kid...back off."  We shall see.  The questions always remain... will this have an impact?  The fact they remember our last discussion and were ready to go further this week, to me, is a positive sign.  It is making them evaluate their beliefs.  Now, let's see if we can get them to change their actions...
For those of you interested, the following is the lesson plan I introduced this week to the freshmen here at our school:

·        The teacher will then lead a Human Barometer Game – where the students will have an opportunity to discuss and evaluate their perceptions about bullying.  There will three zones – Strongly Agree, Strongly Disagree, Not Sure.  The teacher will read a list of statements – students need to choose a zone based on whether they personally agree, disagree with the statements.  If they’re not sure how they feel, they choose “not sure.”  After choosing their zone, groups in each zone discuss why they chose that zone and choosing one speaker (a different speaker for each time we have a statement), they must find a way to say in one sentence why their group is standing there.  After all three groups present their arguments, an opportunity is given for students to move to a different group, (to reassess if you will).
o       In today’s world, bullying is expected and often rewarded.
o       Sometimes violence is a necessary solution.
o       Teasing and rough play is not that serious.
o       Bullying and harassment are the same thing.
o       Cyber bullying can easily be prevented.
o       Poor people commit more acts of violence than people with money.
o       Men are more likely to be bullies than women.
o       The family is where we first learn to bully.
o       We can someday live in a non-violent world.
·        Students will take a piece of paper and crumple it up, stamp on it and really mess it up but NOT rip it.  Then the teacher will have them unfold the paper, smooth it out and look at how scarred and dirty it is.
o       Teacher will then have the students apologize to the paper.  Even though the students say “they’re sorry,” and try to straighten out the paper, the teacher will point out all the scars left behind.  Those scars will never go away, no matter how hard they try to fix it.
o       The teacher will point out that is what happens when we use words like “ho,” “fag,” “loser,” “stupid,” “retard,” and “fat.”  They may say they’re sorry but the damage is done.  I discovered that this activity wasn't effective with some of the students -- especially those who were more vocal in their beliefs that victims bring bullying on themselves.  For that group, I ended switching things up a bit and brought in's/ quiz on bullying.  It created some great discussions about stereotypes about bullies and victims.
·        After the human barometer game and discussion, students will be split into groups of four to five students in a group.  They will be given a large piece of paper to share.  They’ll be instructed to brainstorm on the following:
o       A Public Service Announcement idea for WANT TV.  Explain that a PSA must inform, educate and inspire change.  The PSA should be short, can contain dialogue (but doesn't have to), and must contain some important message or action the students want the viewer to know or take. 
o       Students will create their idea for a PSA for consideration for WANT TV.  The winning 3 or 4 concepts will be produced and aired on WANT TV.
o       Give students about ten to fifteen minutes to brainstorm and discuss, write up their concept (with dialogue if appropriate) and hand in. Collect the PSA ideas at the end of the period.

·        Wrap up with a brief discussion about whether any perceptions changed during the human barometer game.  Did anything surprise the groups about the brainstorming session?  Any observations or discussions come out that they didn’t expect?  (For example, my students got into an active debate about “intent” and the definition of bullying.)

Content/Concepts/Skills students will be learning
Students will start to redefine and analyze their perceptions on violence and bullying, its roots and its future.  Students will work on their own observations, sharing stories and start to look at the school community.

Student Assessment
Students will be assessed on written PSA idea (handed in).  Students are assessed on participation in the human barometer game, verbal responses to the questions from the brainstorming session.