All Stakeholders Should Discuss New Jersey’s Anti-Bullying Law

By Patricia Wright

The New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association believes that a positive school climate is essential to creating a safe and secure learning environment for all students. There is no doubt that bullying has no place in our schools. That is why we want to help ensure that NJ adopts the most effective approach to bullying prevention.

Research clearly indicates that strengthening school climate is the number one best remedy for bullying in our schools. We believe that the N.J. Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights (ABBR) also emphasizes this key fact. The spirit of the law clearly intends that schools, through their school safety teams, begin to analyze school climate data to improve the overall school culture.

High quality training must be provided to all stakeholders. First, everyone in the school community must understand the difference between bullying and normal conflict. Staff, parents and students struggle with understanding this difference. This contributes to poor use of time and resources in schools that could be better spent promoting a positive school climate.

Secondly, training must emphasize best practices that support the development of schools that embrace respect, civility and tolerance—climates where bullying is least likely to occur. The law also correctly focuses on educating our students and providing them the information necessary to become part of the solution. Any successful anti-bullying approach relies on educating the bystanders—the 85% of students who are neither victims nor bullies, but who can have a tremendous impact on sending the message that bullying will not be tolerated.

It appears that the law’s intent of addressing the systemic underpinnings of harassment, intimidation and bullying through an emphasis on positive social skills, education and school climate, has been clouded due to its strong focus on compliance.

In the experience of school leaders across New Jersey, this has resulted in some unintended negative consequences at the school building level that merit further discussion and legislative consideration.

As noted in the recent decision of the New Jersey Council on Local Mandates, the ABBR was not funded despite its clear mandates on local districts related to staffing and training. Principals have struggled to work creatively within the limits of local resources to begin implementation of the law. However, schools need stable funding for training that is not focused on compliance, but rather on ways to foster a school climate built on mutual respect. This funding should support the work of the school safety team in each school to develop and implement school climate initiatives that address the unique culture of each school.

Principals need to be empowered to investigate bullying incidents directly and address bullying
incidents in their schools immediately to safeguard all students and create a school climate where students know they are safe. Yet, the ABBR’s mandated approach to investigating bullying incidents erects some real roadblocks to prompt action at the school level by requiring local boards of education to review every disciplinary action related to bullying.

Further, school guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists, serving as anti-bullying specialists, now spend less time counseling and assisting students and far more time investigating and reporting on bullying allegations. We must address this role conflict and re-direction of the guidance role in schools to restore each school’s ability to provide much needed counseling services to vulnerable students.

The New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association supports the ant-bullying legislation and is eager to continue to work with stakeholders to develop a coherent state-wide strategy that truly ensures a safe and secure learning environment for all students. Our children deserve nothing less.

Patricia Wright has served as a member of the NJ Bullying Commission and is co-author of the NJ State Bar Foundation’s Anti-bullying Curriculum. A career educator, she is currently the Executive Director of the NJ Principals and Supervisors Association.

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