by JEEVAN NAGPAL
School districts all across New Jersey enacted the new anti-bullying law on September 1, which requires schools to adopt extensive bullying policies, provide staff training, and submit reports of bullying to the Department of Education on deadlines.
The Anti-Bullying law is the toughest legislation in the country. The state was working on the law for almost a year, but it was sparked after the death of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers freshman, last September. Clementi commited suicide after his roommate streamed Clementi’s romantic encounter with another man on the Internet.
Governor Chris Christie signed the bill in January, but the law took effect in September.
The “Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights” has various aspects to the law.
It requires each school to execute a formal process for suspected bullying, including incidents of harassment and intimidation on school grounds, off school grounds, and even online. According to the law, every allegation of bullying must be investigated within one day of the incident.
The law also demands that teachers, administrators, and other school employees receive extensive training on how to detect bullying. Each district must have a “school safety team,” which consists of parents, teachers, and staff members, to review all complaints. Every district needs an “anti-bullying coordinator,” and each school needs an “anti-bullying specialist.”
At Monroe Township High School, the Anti-Bullying Coordinator is Ms. Sharon Biggs, and the Anti-Bullying Specialists are Ms. Cathy Ielpi and Doreen Mullarney.
I interviewed Ms. Ielpi about the policies in Monroe.
Q: 1. What has Monroe done since the law took action in August?
A: The Anti-Bullying law was unanimously approved by the New Jersey Legislature in January 2011. It was mandated that all schools follow the law starting September 2011; however, the MonroeTownshipschool district went into action after the bill was passed last school year. Before September 2011, all MonroeTownshipschools had chosen their Anti-bullying Specialists and the members for their School Safety Teams. We also met with Legal One and our school’s attorney so we could fully learn about the guidelines and mandates of the law. Starting September 2011, MonroeTownshipHigh Schoolwas ready to comply fully with the Anti-Bullying law.
Q: 2. Many school districts provided the teachers and other employees in the school with extensive training on bullying and how to go about it. Did Monroe implement training for their teachers? If so, what kind of training was provided?
A: All staff, para-professionals, cafeteria workers, office staff, security, bus drivers and custodians have had training on the Anti-Bullying law. Since the law mandates that all acts of suspected harassment, intimidation and bullying, whether on school grounds or off school grounds must be reported, our school district has made sure that all working members of our community understand the law and how to report if needed. There will be continued training throughout the school year as well focusing on specific topics and issues related to harassment, intimidation and bullying.
Q: 3. Some schools have set up various sources where a student can report a bullying incident anonymously. Does Monroe contribute such sources? Do you believe this to be effective?
A: Although we will respond to anonymous reports, we don’t encourage them. We believe that it is very important for students to stand up for their rights to have a safe and respectful school, and that means that they should feel confident and safe about reporting. If students are afraid of retaliation, they should know that it is part of the law that any acts of retaliation will be penalized as well. Actually, we have been so impressed and moved by how many students have come to us to report on behalf of a friend or classmate, or accompanying a friend or classmate, who doesn’t feel empowered or comfortable to report on their own. It is truly our hope that all students understand that the ultimate goal of this law is not to get students “in trouble,” but to make school a place where all students feel safe and respected.
Q: 4. What are some of the consequences if an incident involving bullying is reported?
A: I am glad that you asked this question because this issue is where the students and parents have the most misinformation. There is a very comprehensive and detailed process that goes into reporting a suspected act of harassment, intimidation, and bullying. If an adult or student suspects an act of harassment, intimidation, or bullying (HIB) has occurred towards a student or students in this building, they should verbally report it to the principal, administrator, or if neither one of them is available, then the Anti-Bullying Specialists. If the situation is an act of HIB, then a written HIB report is filed. The Anti-Bullying Specialists then run an investigation where the parties involved in the case, as well as witnesses for each side, are interviewed to get their view of the situation. Detailed notes are taken and all sides are heard. The Anti-Bullying Specialists are required to write a formal report including the details of all the parties involved. This report is given to the Principal and the Superintendent. It is the job of the Superintendent to decide the next steps involving the outcome of the case. If the case has revealed that an act of HIB has taken place towards another student(s), then the Superintendent will decide if the student(s) needs to be suspended or whether the situation can be mediated. Sometimes the Superintendent may also request that the students involved be counseled.
The Principal and Administrators are still fully responsible for upholding our school’s Code of Conduct, so if an incident occurs that has broken our Code of Conduct, or has put student(s) in a position of immediate danger, the Principal has the jurisdiction to suspend them immediately.
According to the district policy: “The current statute does not require HIB student records to be included in a student’s permanent school records, or that the HIB records travel with students as they promote within one school district or throughout multiple school districts.”
Q: 5. A lot of critics say that this law is expensive, and schools aren’t provided with the extra costs. They are paying for training programs and hiring bullying consultants. Do you believe this to be true? Why or why not?
A: This is a very frustrating issue. The District Anti-Bullying Coordinator and the Anti-Bullying Specialists have provided all of the training for our school community, so no outside agencies have had to be paid for this. However, we were given no money for prevention and intervention programs and this has been very difficult.
Q: 6. If a student in Monroe Township High School is bullied, what can he or she do to report it? Should he or she report it to the police or should he or she consult with a teacher or counselor?
A: If a student has had their life threatened or is in immediate danger, then the police should be involved. If a student(s) is being harassed, intimidated or bullied at school, then the student should report it. The student can report the issue to a teacher, administrator, or guidance counselor, and that person will then share the information with us, the Anti-Bullying Specialists. The student(s) can also come directly to the Anti-bullying Specialists as well. Cathy Ielpi and Doreen Mullarney are the school’s Anti-bullying Specialists, and we are located in the College and CareerCounselingCenter. The bottom line is that no student should feel that it is alright for them to be teased or harassed at school. There are people who are ready to listen to you and to help you.
Q: 7. If I may ask, what is your opinion about the law? Is it harsh or is it fair? Do you believe that it will be effective?
A: The mandating of the newly updated Anti-Bullying law came into effect as a response to the death of Tyler Clementi, theRutgersstudent who committed suicide after a cruel act of harassment by his room mate. It is every students’ right to feel safe, respected and comfortable in school so they can concentrate on getting an education. Putting in place a law that mandates that a school responds to suspected acts of HIB will hopefully encourage all students to treat one another with the kindness and dignity that all people deserve. No one deserves to feel that they are less than any one else. If this law gives hope to students who may have in the past thought that they were less valued than others, then the law is doing its job. I think the people that feel the law is “too harsh” are the people that believe that this law is unfair to young people who just want to be “kids” or are just “having fun.” As the Anti-Bullying Specialists of the school, when we investigate a case where the kids are truly just fooling around, and every one involved feels they were on an equal playing field, then the case is usually dropped. However, it is wrong to just say it is “fooling around” if someone feels that their worth is being diminished.
As the Anti-Bullying specialists this law has helped us identify young people who may need counseling to learn better coping skills, and ways to feel more confident to stand up for themselves, but this should never be used as a way to excuse some one for being cruel. Harassing, intimidating or bullying someone is just mean, and no one should feel that it is his/her right to say what ever they want to someone else regardless of how it makes that person feel. If you had to chose between a small act of kindness towards someone who may need it, knowing that it could make an impact that can last a life time, or an act of meanness that could be the last straw for a student that believes that suicide is the only way out of being teased and harassed, which one would you chose?
In the short time this law has been in effect, we have seen many students step up and stand up for students who feel less empowered. We are proud to be in a school with such positive role models; they give us hope that MonroeTownshipcan be a school where all students feel valued.
If you are a victim of bullying, reach out to a teacher. Do not suffer in silence.