A student approaches his middle school principal and pours out a tale of being harassed verbally, as well as assaulted physically, by classmates who have been bullying him for months. The principal listens sympathetically, and then offers a prospective solution. “I would certainly understand,” he tells the boy, “if you retaliated against the bullies with physical force.”
If this advice sounds ridiculous to you—like something out of a Saturday Night Live skit or a movie spoofing adolescent life—think again. This is what a middle school student in New Jersey allegedly was told by his principal following years of bullying.
That principal, now retired, may have been well-intended in his alleged response. He may have been equally well-intended when he told the boy’s mother that transferring him to another school might be best for all concerned. But the response was the wrong one. And it is emblematic of an “old school”—but still evident—attitude toward bullying in some quarters. The Attorney General’s Office, working with other agencies at every level, is committed to changing these attitudes.
Here in 2011, in the wake of many highly-publicized, bullying-related community tragedies across the country, some young people still do not fully grasp the harm that can be inflicted by bullying. And some well-meaning adults—as the anecdote that began this article suggests—still tend to view bullying as nothing more than a rite-of-passage. These people believe that bullying will force the victims to “toughen up,” learn how to “handle themselves” and otherwise prepare children for the rigors of adult life. But this school-of-hard-knocks theory is misguided.
Bullying subjects its victims to lives filled with fear, sadness, hurt and anger.
Victims dread each new day. And each new tomorrow offers nothing beyond the promise of more torment.
Bullying is not only a school problem, either. It takes place on the street, on the job and on-line. Indeed, if the harassment involves “cyber-bullying”—that is, bullying taking place over the internet, perhaps via a popular social networking site—it can leave victims feeling like the entire world is bullying them, and there is no escape.
Bullying has been linked to an increased likelihood of future criminal conduct—such as bias crimes—by those who engage in bullying. It has been linked to any number of actual—and planned—shooting rampages carried out by those who’ve been the victims of bullying.
Some may remember the arrest in 2003 of three teen-agers in Oaklyn, Camden County. The youths were found walking along a suburban street in the early morning hours dressed in dark clothing and armed with rifles and 2,000 rounds of ammunition. Law enforcement later learned they had planned a shooting spree intended to claim, among others, several classmates who’d bullied them.
And, although suicide is a sensitive and complex issue, bullying has been cited as one possible factor in numerous cases in which young people have taken their own lives.
In short, bullying is a serious community safety issue, and a problem that all of us—including law enforcement, educators, the clergy, civic leaders, and members of municipal, county and state government—have a stake in solving. One element of the solution is to drive home the message that bullying is not harmless or “part of growing up.” It does real damage, and can have serious, if not tragic, consequences for all involved.
Bullying conduct is not just unkind—it is illegal. And we must let it be known we’re serious by enforcing bullying-related laws with vigor. Many people do not realize that bullying can be prosecuted criminally.
For example, bullying that involves assaults, threatened violence, theft, physical restraint, use of weapons and/or vandalism has the potential to be treated as criminal conduct. Even cases of bullying that do not rise to this criminal level can have consequences under the law.
In New Jersey, we have the nation’s oldest and most comprehensive state civil rights law—the Law Against Discrimination (LAD). The LAD deals with many types of discrimination. And it focuses specifically on certain “protected” categories, so it would not apply in all cases of bullying. However, for purposes of this discussion, it’s worth noting that the “protected” categories focused on by the LAD are often the very categories focused on by bullies: race, ethnicity, religion, gender, perceived sexual orientation and disability, among others. When bullying is bias-based, the perpetrators—as well as those who know about their actions and fail to stop them—can be prosecuted civilly under the LAD.
In 2010, our Division on Civil Rights issued Findings of Probable Cause against two New Jersey school districts—Emerson Borough and Old Bridge Township—for failing to effectively address long-term student bullying situations. Both school districts have denied discriminating. And both cases are pending. However, a Finding of Probable Cause means the state’s investigation has yielded evidence to support a “reasonable suspicion” that the alleged conduct was discriminatory.
In the Old Bridge case, a middle school student was allegedly bullied for the better part of three years because of his perceived sexual orientation and because of his Jewish faith. In this case the now-retired principal allegedly told the boy to consider physical action against his tormentors and told his mother to consider a transfer. In the Emerson case, a male student allegedly was the victim of verbal torment, physical assaults and cyber-harassment that went on for five years—a period spanning his middle school years and most of his time in high school. The issue, again, was the student’s perceived sexual orientation.
Both districts had zero tolerance anti-bullying policies on the books—as many districts do. But it is not enough to write anti-bullying policies. The policies must be enforced. Prevention must be a priority. And merely punishing students for acts of bullying after the fact—with such things as lost privileges, detention or suspension—is not sufficient. When confronted with evidence of persistent bullying activity, a school district has a duty under the law to take “actions reasonably calculated to stop it.”
In addition to the state’s other efforts, many readers are probably aware that New Jersey has adopted an Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act. The Act, which takes effect in the coming school year, is designed to strengthen the state’s existing approach to bullying. Under the new law, training will be required for most public school employees on how to spot bullying. School districts will be required to form “school safety teams” to review bullying complaints, and to have a school “bullying specialist” on staff. School superintendents will be required to report incidents of bullying to the state Department of Education, which will also grade schools and districts on their efforts at combating the problem. In addition, school employees will be required to report all bullying incidents that come to their attention—whether they occur in school or not. With the new law in place, there are now clear protocols for addressing the problem of student-on-student bullying. The schools will know their responsibilities, and the students will know their recourse.
Generally, our schools do provide a safe, nurturing place for young people to learn and interact. In fact, in some situations, time spent at school may be the most consistently safe and nurturing part of a child’s day.
Today, much closer interaction is required between the schools and law enforcement. And that is exactly what’s happening. Certainly, our anti-bullying outreach and awareness efforts—like the cyber-bullying forum we hosted in conjunction with a cable television network in December 2010 in Bergen County—are vital. Likewise, encouraging students to take a degree of “ownership” of their education and school environment by emphasizing compassion, good citizenship and a sense of responsibility for others, is a crucial element.
But New Jersey’s law enforcement and education communities still share primary responsibility for ensuring that school buildings are secure, students are protected, and that viable plans are in place for dealing with all manner of threats—including bullying.
That is why many schools feature a regular daily police presence in the form of sworn law enforcement “resource officers” assigned to them by their local municipal police departments. It is why each of our 21 county prosecutors’ offices, as well as each police department with patrol jurisdiction in a given school district, has personnel assigned to liaison with appropriate local and county school officials. And it is why there is a “Memorandum of Agreement Between Education and Law Enforcement Officials”—approved by my office and the Department of Education—that sets forth policies and procedures for police and school personnel to follow.
We are making progress where bullying is concerned, but the simple fact is that our work is far from done. By working together, however—and through a sustained commitment to awareness and enforcement—we can change outmoded attitudes and prevail in the effort to end bullying.
Originally published in New Jersey
Municipalities, Volume 88, Number 6, June 2011