Tyler Clementi’s former Rutgers University roommate, Dharun Ravi, appeared in a New Jersey court Thursday for another hearing related to charges that he secretly watched and shared scenes of Clementi’s intimacy with another man via a webcam.
If the case goes to trial as scheduled on Feb. 21, a jury will decide whether Mr. Ravi committed a hate crime by targeting Clementi because he was gay. Since Clementi’s suicide in September 2010, New Jersey has adopted a new antibullying law, which the state’s school districts and public universities, such as Rutgers, are in the throes of implementing.
Antibullying activists say New Jersey’s law is the most comprehensive in the United States. For instance, the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, which went into effect at the start of the school year, is the first such law to require public universities, not just K-12 schools, to distribute antibullying policies to students, according to Garden State Equality, a group that helped draft the law and that focuses on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity.
As school districts begin the task of implementing the law’s educational and reporting requirements, some educators worry that it places too many burdens on schools at a time when resources are so tight. Antibullying advocates answer that the bullying and teen-suicide crises justify strong requirements, and they see the law as a model for many other states.
One-third of students ages 12 to 18 experience bullying during a given school year, according to a 2009 federal study.Clementi’s case added to a string of student suicides in recent years that appear to have overtones of bullying or harassment. Many of those teenagers were gay, or were perceived by classmates as “different” when it came to sexual orientation or gender identity. Fourteen-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer of suburban Buffalo, N.Y., is one of the latest to be added to the list, in spite of the fact that his family thought the bullying had subsided when he started high school.Among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youths, nearly 9 in 10 report being harassed at school, according to a 2009 report by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). Of 47 states with antibullying laws, 14 – including New Jersey – specifically enumerate sexual orientation and gender identity as categories that need to be addressed in school policies, GLSEN reports.“In the past, it’s been more difficult for school staff to know how to intervene properly when they see bullying based on sexual orientation and gender identity,” says Shawn Gaylord, director of Public Policy in GLSEN’s Washington office. But research shows a connection between such “enumeration policies” and more teacher involvement, he says, because “teachers know they have a strong policy to back them up when they intervene.” Various elements in the K-12 portions of the New Jersey law are “firsts” nationwide, according to Garden State Equality, including:
• One-third of students ages 12 to 18 experience bullying during a given school year, according to a 2009 federal study.
• Requiring an antibullying coordinator in every district, and an antibullying specialist in every school to lead a team that includes the principal, a teacher, and a parent.
• Grading every school for how well it counteracts bullying.
• Training teachers in suicide prevention, specifically with regard to students from high-risk groups.
Elements that the New Jersey law shares with some other states include a specific ban on cyberbullying; a requirement to address bullying that happens on buses and off campus, if it affects the school climate; antibullying education at all grade levels; and provisions for counseling and other interventions for both bullies and victims.
Because it includes both counseling and cyberbullying, the New Jersey law is one of 14 around the country rated A++ by Bully Police USA, a group that works to prevent bullying and “bullycide.”
Brenda High, founder of the group, says that the term bullycide – suicide prompted by bullying – began in Britain, but that she and other parents have popularized it in the US. Her son took his life because of bullying in 1998.
Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, is concerned that the law goes too far. “We support establishing a school culture that provides safety and demands and teaches respect among students,” he told Education Week, but “what we can’t say is that schools’ efforts will control the behavior of everybody outside the school.”
Some aspects of implementing the law are time-consuming, and, perhaps for the youngest children, the strict investigation requirements aren’t the best fit, says Jessica de Koninck, antibullying coordinator for the South Orange/Maplewood School District. But “overall it’s going well,” she says.
“It empowers parents and students,” she adds. Already, she knows of a parent who reported a child was being repeatedly bullied, and that parent “might not have felt comfortable coming forward if not for the publicity around this new law.”
During the state-mandated Week of Respect earlier this month, Ms. de Koninck’s district held a variety of events, including a talk by a former local student who had been bullied and went on to become an Olympian, and a visit by the author of a popular children’s book that addresses meanness versus respect.
The state law’s potency will depend on how each district implements it, says Barbara Coloroso, an antibullying educator and author in Littleton, Colo. “It doesn’t take a lot of money or time, but a lot of caring about every kid in that school, [showing them] that they feel safe and they matter…. When kids know there are swift and effective consequences, [bullying] doesn’t spread as much.”