NJ lawmakers take steps to fight bullying

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Panels in both chambers of the New Jersey General Assembly voted this week to move forward on a proposed anti-bullying law that takes a comprehensive approach to lessening classroom harassment.

The Education Committee of both the Senate and Assembly approved the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Monday.

The measure was introduced Oct. 25 by Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D) and Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D).

The bill, which has bipartisan support, currently has 28 cosponsors in the Senate and 46 in the Assembly, which is more than enough to pass.

Both chambers are scheduled to vote on the measure Nov. 22.

New Jersey has had an anti-bullying law in place since 2002, but the new measure would strengthen the law, setting up clear procedures and consequences for both students and educators.

The legislation would mandate comprehensive training for school officials and create school-safety teams composed of students, faculty and staff to review bullying complaints. The measure strengthens accountability for bullying, as schools must compile an annual report of bullying incidents to the Commissioner of Education, who will grade each school on its ability to deal with the issues.

Educators who do not properly respond to incidents of bullying could face disciplinary action, and students who bully others would also be subject to penalties such as suspension or expulsion.

The bill, which extends bullying protections to off-school grounds, mentions student characteristics that most often attract bullies, including sexual orientation, although it notes that bullying for any reason is prohibited.

Although Buono and Huttle introduced the measure days after the suicide of gay Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, the bill has been in the works since last December, when the New Jersey Commission on Bullying in Schools released a report finding high rates of school bullying in the state.

Victims of school bullying took the microphone at both committee hearings Monday, telling of the torment they have faced in their classrooms.

Openly gay 16-year-old Matthew Zimmer, who attended Clementi’s high school, said he faced harassment from both students and teachers, and the school’s principal did little to stop the bullying.

John Otto, 17, also said he was targeted after he came out, and then he considered suicide.

There was some opposition, however, to the measure by agencies like New Jersey Family First, whose director of government affairs Gregory Quinlan objected to protected classes being included in the legislation, suggesting it limits free-speech rights.

But Huttle emphasized to her fellow legislators that there are real consequences of school bullying.

“Every day there is a student in an elementary school, high school or even college who feels a sense of fear and emotional dread every time he or she steps foot into the school building or signs onto the Internet,” she said. “For some students, it will hinder their academic performance. For others, it will mean something unspeakably worse.”

Michelle Weinberg told lawmakers how her son, Larry, a high-school senior, hung himself after facing relentless bullying.

“How could a kid who loved life as much as he did be driven to such despair? The pain and the humiliation overwhelmed him,” she testified. “As we are sitting in this room, there are hundreds and hundreds of kids in the state of New Jersey alone who are being bullied. We have to do something to stop this vile behavior.”

Jen Colletta can be reached at [email protected].