Bullying. There aren’t many words that are more on the minds of parents, teachers, school administrators, students—and even movie-goers—nationwide and in New Jersey. Raising awareness around the issue of bullying has placed schools and families at the forefront of the battle against a problem that can have devastating consequences.
Some surveys show that upwards of one in four children is bullied consistently. Others find a third of all students are directly involved in serious, frequent bullying, either as the victim or perpetrator. Further, more than five percent of New Jersey high school students say they’ve avoided school at least once in the past month due to persistent bullying and an unsafe school environment. These numbers are even higher for children with special needs, and those who are, or are perceived to be, gay. Upwards of 75 percent of these students are verbally harassed or bullied.
Bullying no longer takes place only in hallways, school buses, and gym classes. One in three teens say they’ve been seriously threatened online. What’s more disturbing, some surveys indicate 60 percent of students have engaged in cyberbullying another child.
Bullying's Consequences are Far-reaching
Victims are at risk for anxiety, depression, academic problems, violent retaliation, psychosomatic pain, or increased thoughts of suicide.
Bullies are at risk for alcohol and drug abuse, escalating violence, problems with social and romantic relationships, and other academic and psychological difficulties.
Even witnesses are affected. Bystanders who see bullying are more likely to engage in alcohol and drug use, have symptoms of depression or anxiety, and are more apt to skip school.
NJ's Bill of Rights
Because of public outcry, increased awareness of the negative effects of bullying, and several publicized suicides, New Jersey recently revised its bullying policy, creating one of the most far-reaching and stringent anti-bullying laws in the country.
The Garden State has had an anti-bullying law on the books since 2002. But the recent changes, which went into effect in September of the 2011-2012 school year, were designed to give the existing laws more teeth by strengthening standards for preventing, reporting, investigating, and responding to incidents in schools. Here are some of the new provisions:
- Now schools must investigate every bullying incident reported to them by staff, students, and parents. If an investigation finds that an incident constitutes bullying, the school must provide appropriate services to both the bully and the victim. For the latter, these services may include mentoring, counseling, or helping the student connect with other peers.
- Students who bully may face consequences such as losing school privileges, increased supervision, and suspension or expulsion for more serious offenses. Such penalties must include measures aimed at preventing recurrences, and may include, but aren’t limited to, counseling, the ability to earn positive leadership positions at school, or improving home-school communication.
According to one administrator from southwestern New Jersey, the law has had a significant impact on her district. She says it “has created clear procedures for handling reports,” and “trained staff on bullying.” In addition, the district has increased programs based on enhancing children’s social and emotional development.
And individual teachers are taking proactive measures in their classrooms. One fourth-grade teacher in central New Jersey, for example, incorporates positive messages into the daily curriculum.
“Bullying is a big weight to bear on some kids,” she says. So her work focuses on class-wide prevention and activities that unite students and teach them mutual respect. “It’s really important,” she says, “to try and get the bystanders, so they see something and say something.”
Upon entering her classroom, you see posters declaring it a “bully-free zone,” and student-made artwork saying her class will “stand up to bullying.” A Compliment Tree allows students to write positive messages about each other. “It makes them feel good, which some of these kids might be missing.”
Yet some New Jersey parents express concern over how seriously school districts are taking the new legislation. “It just seems like they’re dragging their toes” one mother says. She says bullying prevention activities have been “all lip service” while the district “hopes [the new law] will go away.”
Another parent in the same district notes some positive measures, including an assembly that “really got kids passionate” about stopping bullying. The district, however, didn’t follow up, leaving the parent, and her children, to perceive the effort as “short-lived.”
Bullying remains a complicated problem that requires comprehensive solutions. It’s imperative that students, families, and school districts agree on how to prevent and handle it. A child’s future may depend on it.
One New Jersey mom sums it up best when she says, “The schools need to teach students to embrace everyone from an early age, regardless of their differences, and work toward understanding one another.”
Bullying Prevention Begins at Home
- Talk to your child about bullying: what it is, what it isn’t, and whom to tell.
- Take your child’s fears and concerns seriously. Tell him he can always come to you if he feels he’s been bullied.
- Document bullying. Keep track of the information about any incident.
- Inform school adults if your child discloses bullying to you.
- Stay in touch with the school. Ask how you can work together.
- Know the school policies on bullying. Your child’s school district should have its anti-bullying policy posted on the district website’s home page.
- Follow up. Make sure procedures are followed correctly.
- Stay alert for warning signs in your child, such as changes in eating or sleeping habits, low moods, avoiding school, or sudden academic changes.
- Tell your child to ignore bullying.
- Have the bully and victim “work it out.” This sends the message that both children need to change their behavior, but the victim is not doing anything wrong. Tell your child to tell an adult if he feels bullied.
- Encourage your child to fight back. This is neither safe nor appropriate.
- Expect immediate changes. Even if there’s an appropriate response, it can take time for the bullying to stop.
- Contact the parents of the other child directly. The school has procedures for handling each incident.
Christopher Velderman is a school psychology doctoral student at the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology at Rutgers; he works with the Rutgers Bullying Prevention Institute.