Cyber-Bully Hysteria: New Jersey Adopts New Anti-bullying Legislation

As of September 1st 2011, the state of New Jersey in the US implemented some of the toughest anti bullying legislation in the world. The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights is designed to protect New Jersey students from bullying and intimidation at the hands of their peers, both inside and outside the classroom. The law is extraordinary in its scope, educators will now be required to investigate all bullying complaints, whether they happened within the school or not, and act on them accordingly. The New York Times reports:

(The Legislation) demands that all public schools adopt comprehensive antibullying policies (there are 18 pages of “required components”), increase staff training and adhere to tight deadlines for reporting episodes.

Each school must designate an antibullying specialist to investigate complaints; each district must, in turn, have an antibullying coordinator; and the State Education Department will evaluate every effort, posting grades on its Web site. Superintendents said that educators who failed to comply could lose their licenses.

“I think this has gone well overboard,” Richard G. Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, said. “Now we have to police the community 24 hours a day. Where are the people and the resources to do this?”

In most cases, schools are tapping guidance counselors and social workers as the new antibullying specialists, raising questions of whether they have the time or experience to look into every complaint of harassment or intimidation and write the detailed reports required.

Under the new law, every bullying complaint must be investigated within a day of the complaint being lodged, and an extensive report must be filled out for each such investigation. According to the NY Times, New Jersey had 2846 such bullying complaints in 2008. As part of the new bullying legislation, students will be encouraged to report any and all bullying they may see. The NY times reports:

children, including kindergartners, will spend six class periods learning, among other things, the difference between telling and tattling.

And at North Hunterdon High School, students will be told that there is no such thing as an innocent bystander when it comes to bullying: if they see it, they have a responsibility to try to stop it…

“The whole push is to incorporate the antibullying process into the culture,” Lucila Hernandez, a school psychologist, said. “We’re empowering children to use the term ‘bullying’ and to speak up for themselves and for others.”

Undoubtedly, bullying complaints will rise under the new legislation. Even if actual bullying doesn’t increase, children will feel more comfortable about reporting bullying incidents. Soon enough, the New Jersey school system will be clogged with bullying complaints, and administrators will soon find they are spending more and more of their time satisfying this legislation than they do actually educating students. Fortunately, children are also encouraged to snitch on classmates to the police via crime stoppers:

In the East Hanover district, the new partnership with Crimestoppers, a program of the Morris County sheriff’s office, is intended to make reporting easier, but it also ups the ante by involving law enforcement rather than resolving issues in the principal’s office. Crimestoppers will accept anonymous text messages, calls or tips to its Web site, then forward the information to school and local police officials.

A reasonable person may argue that these new measures, while dramatic, are necessary in combating a serious problem, and if New Jersey is receiving thousands of bullying complaints each year, perhaps such measures are warranted. But what are the bulk of bullying complaints received actually about?

Dr. Bergacs, who investigates half a dozen complaints of bullying each month, said most involved both comments on the Internet and face-to-face confrontations on campus. “It’s gossip, innuendo, rumors — and people getting mad about it,” he said.

In other words, petty childhood gossip, the kind of drama filled socializing that is typical of normal children and teenagers.

This legislation was brought into effect in response to the suicide of Tyler Clementi, a New Jersey college student who committed suicide shortly after his roommate secretly filmed him kissing another man in his dorm room. More broadly, this legislation is a knee jerk reaction to the recent media hysteria surrounding “Cyber Bullying.” But will these new laws actually make children safer from bullying, cyber or otherwise?

Even districts that have long made antibullying programs a priority are preparing to step up their efforts, in response to the greater reporting demands. “This gives a definite timeline,” the Westfield superintendent, Margaret Dolan, said, noting the new one-day requirement. “Before, our rule was you need to do it as quickly as possible.”

But Dr. Dolan cautioned that an unintended consequence of the new law could be that students, or their parents, will find it easier to label minor squabbles bullying than to find ways to work out their differences.

“Kids have to learn to deal with conflict,” she said. “What a shame if they don’t know how to effectively interact with their peers when they have a disagreement.”

It is not hard to imagine every minor argument between students descending into accusations of bullying. In most schoolyard arguments, both children will have contributed to the conflict to some extent, and if one child is looking at a suspension for being a bully, the rational thing to do is to accuse his or her accuser of the same thing. This legislation, with its excessive focus on forcing children to report any and all infractions they see, also overlooks one critical fact about growing up: the kids that consistently run to adults to resolve their disputes are either excluded or mark themselves as victims.

It’s an unpleasant fact of life, but anyone– adult or child– that cannot resolve their own conflicts and consistently relies on an external authority figure to handle their own disputes. This is not a new problem, and is a major hurdle any anti bullying policy needs to address in order to be successful.

Regular Intentious readers may remember Casey Heyne, the Australian schoolboy who was suspended for defending himself in a schoolyard fight.

A young schoolboy bodyslamming another during a fight on school property

Casey Heyne, doing more to prevent bullying in 10 seconds than a whole decade of intervention by the school system

Casey was suspended for his part in this fight, even though he had been the victim of countless bullies in the past, was repeatedly struck in the face by his aggressor, and immediately ceased fighting the moment his aggressor backed off.

The school was trying to send a strong message against violence when they suspended Casey, but all they really did was prove that educators have little to no understanding of the real problems children encounter. The bullied kids watching from youtube learned another valuable lesson: sometimes it is better to fight back.

Unfortunately, there will always be children that are genuine victims of physical and verbal harassment, and we certainly need systems in place to protect those children. But the vast majority of cases being labelled as “bullying” are two quarrelling children. Children and teenagers aren’t as mature as adults, and when two children argue, it will most often descend into name calling and spreading rumours. We shouldn’t condone this behaviour, but to label it as bullying misses the point entirely.

Instead of encouraging children to tell on each other at the earliest possible opportunity, wouldn’t we better serve them by instilling in them the skills they’ll need to survive in the real world? Wouldn’t tax money be better spent on teaching children communication and conflict resolution skills rather than setting up anonymous hotlines for them to dob on their peers to the police?

Read More:

Bullying Law Puts New Jersey Schools on Spot – The New York Times, Winnie Hu

N.J. Gov. Christie approves toughest anti-bullying law in the country –, Matt Friedman

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Categories: Crime, People, Politics, Law

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5 Comments on “Cyber-Bully Hysteria: New Jersey Adopts New Anti-bullying Legislation”

  1. Mike
    September 9, 2011 at 12:19 am #

    I’m happy that NJ has this over-legislation to protect students. When I was growing up, my parents and I sent dozens of complaints of legitimate bullying to two New Jersey schools, and I’m talking about being jumped every day before school, and they did absolutely nothing about it. When the bullies got no punishment but were “counseled” by the principal, I got it worse for being a snitch. Grade 1-7 was a living hell for me until I finally learned to defend myself. I’m glad they went overboard on this one. I hope this legislation isn’t just a headache for educators, but a full blown migraine.

    • James Hill
      September 9, 2011 at 9:58 am #

      I’m reasonably certain nothing will change for the better under this legislation. Kids will still run the risk of being branded as snitches for telling, and educators will be severely hampered by red tape to effectively deal with legitimate bullying issues.

      It’s a tragedy that complex organisations like the public school system seem incapable of finding a healthy middle ground on any issue. They either ignore the serious victimization of kids, or they get hysterical and treat every minor disagreement as a vicious attack. The hysteria around cyberbully reminds me of the zero tolerance policies that schools instituted back in the late 90’s to combat weapons and drugs.Suddenly aspirin was considered a dangerous drug and scissors were considered weapons. Those policies did nothing to make kids safer and I suspect the cyber bullying legislation will do the same.

  2. September 15, 2011 at 2:59 pm #

    Online cyberpaths will continue to abuse their victim(s) at any cost and they get a high when they recruit others into their army, which sadly often consist of the victims friends and even family. This feeds and supports their bad behavior.


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