State introduces anti-bullying bill
Whether it takes the form of pinches on the arm or offensive comments on a Facebook page, legislators in New Jersey are standing up to bullying.
The "Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights," a bipartisan effort that state lawmakers introduced last week, would make bullying and harassment causes for suspension or expulsion in schools, require teachers and administrators to go through training on bullying and mandate a policy against bullying in all public colleges and universities across the state.
"When we were growing up, bullying was pretty much accepted as a rite of passage, as something that you just tolerated," Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono said. "This legislation will create a standardized way to identify and investigate incidents of bullying, and it will also train teachers, administrators and board of education members to identify and prevent bullying."
For students at the University, issues in the bill hit close to home.
New Jersey Senate President Stephen Sweeney said University first-year student Tyler Clementi's suicide — allegedly prompted by his roommate filming him during an intimate encounter with another male — just highlighted already existing problems.
"What happened at Rutgers recently only magnifies what's wrong," Sweeney said.
Clementi's desperation is too common among young people, Sen. Richard Codey said.
"The second leading killer of young adults and teenagers is suicide — incredible, sad but true," he said. "It's time to stop it in New Jersey and in this country."
New Jersey Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver agreed that people should not continue to accept that bullying is a part of growing up.
"There was a period of time when parents could tell their children, ‘Sticks and stones will break your bones, but names will never hurt you,'" Oliver said. "That is not true in the new millennium."
Oliver also said people with the power to make change regarding harassment among youngsters ought to use it.
"It is time for us — those who are leaders — to lend our voices and to address issues in this century as they relate to discriminate against people having the inherent right … to be who they want to be," she said.
Although the state passed an anti-bullying law in 2002 and then a law to combat cyberbullying in 2007, the rate of reported bullying in New Jersey remains higher than the national average, Assemblywoman Vainieri Huttle said.
About 160,000 students stay home from school daily because of a fear of harassment at school, leading to lower academic performance and difficulties later in life, she said.
"School should be a safe place for kids. It's becoming a war zone," Huttle said.
Maurice Elias, a psychology professor at the University, said parents often have the power to prevent bullying among young people, but at the college level, where parents are usually absent, such actions tend to be less overt.
"Cyberbullying is an example of the cowardice of many bullies, showing their emotional immaturity and insecurity in that they indirectly and often anonymously put embarrassing information, innuendo and lies about others onto the Internet, where circulation can be viral and almost impossible to withdraw," Elias said via e-mail.
Such actions may have long-term effects on self-esteem, intellectual advancement and social relationships, he said.
While Elias said it is hard to determine whether the bill will have an effect if passed, he said implementation and accountability are important factors in its success.
Furthermore, changes at the college level will help make policies clear to students and administrators, in a manner similar to policies on plagiarism, Elias said.
"The bill will help universities be unambiguously clear about what kinds of behaviors are and are not acceptable and the consequences for violations, and that can only help the problem," he said.
Patrick Love, associate vice president for Student Affairs, said the University is doing an in-depth review of the Student Code of Conduct and will communicate any changes to students should the bill pass to ensure students understand what their responsibilities are.
Still, he said the Student Code of Conduct does include provisions that deal with harassment, and even without the bill being passed, students can be sure the University would deal with such situations appropriately.
"If someone were to bully someone, I believe that there are rules and regulations in the Code of Conduct that would cover that," Love said. "If people don't feel safe … obviously we, as members of the community, would take whatever steps we can to address that."
Regardless of isolated incidents of harassment among students, Love said the University is a place where people of different backgrounds and with different beliefs may come together and exist peacefully.
"What I have appreciated about Rutgers University is the emphasis on developing inclusive, welcoming, civil communities," he said. "To have a campus community where people can feel safe, where people can pursue their dreams, but people can also disagree and argue and debate."