Legislators, Advocates Commemorate New Anti-Bullying Law
Vainieri Huttle, Buono and others were at Fort Lee High School to officially unveil the new “Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights” Tuesday.
FORT LEE -- Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-37), Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono (D-18) and Assemblywoman Mila Jasey (D-27) joined Fort Lee school officials and advocates of New Jersey’s new anti-bullying legislation Tuesday on the front steps of Fort Lee High School to officially commemorate New Jersey’s "Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights."
Calling the legislation “one of the most comprehensive and strongest anti-bullying measures in the country,” Vainieri Huttle said the new law is “bold” because “we believe that it’s time that students feel safe.”
“160,000 kids stay home every day because they are afraid to go to school because of bullying,” Vainieri Huttle said. “These are the kids that we need to give that message to this morning—that they will be protected. The school will protect them. Parents in the community will be stakeholders to keep them safe. So today is an historic day.”
Vainieri Huttle lauded Fort Lee and other districts for already having implemented the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, saying, “Today it is official.”
“Today it will be mandated that it will be a uniform policy, and every school in New Jersey needs to adhere to this policy,” Vainieri Huttle said.
Buono, whom Vainieri Huttle pointed out sponsored one of the first anti-bullying bills in 2002—legislation the two legislators agreed “did not go far enough,” said that while students were returning Tuesday from a “much deserved rest from the classroom, unfortunately too many of them will not get a break from bullying once school begins.”
Buono said that bullying has changed in the 21st century with the advent of smartphones and social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.
“It used to be back when I was a kid that no matter how bad a day in school was that you could always go home at night, and that would be a sanctuary; a refuge. But it’s changed,” Buono said. “All of a sudden, bullying becomes a 24/7 proposition, and a constant—a constant—source of torment for too many of our children. There is no walking away. There is no hiding out and no escape.”
Buono added, “Ensuring the wellbeing of our children is not a choice; it is our responsibility to protect them.”
“Bullying happens because it’s allowed to happen—because we have a culture in which it is tolerated,” she said. “When adults are bystanders, then we become enablers. Our children need to know that when it seems like no one in the world can put an end to what they’re going through every single day of their lives, that we as adults, as their protectors, as the people they can trust to care for them, take action swiftly and aggressively. And that is what this new law, which takes effect today, will do. It’s given [kids dealing with bullying] hope; it’s given them faith that this year will be better than the last.”
She also saluted districts like Fort Lee “and so many others across the state” that “have been taking this fight against bullying seriously,” but derided the state Department of Education for failing to provide clear guidelines for school districts to fully implement the law.
“Right now there some gray areas,” she said.
Noting the presence at the press conference Tuesday of Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich, Assistant Superintendent Steven Engravalle, Board of Education president Arthur Levine and vice president Linda McCue and high school principal Priscilla Church as evidence of the “importance of the issue,” Fort Lee Superintendent of Schools Raymond Bandlow acknowledged those “gray areas,” but also said, “We understand that this law really puts the onus on schools.”
“We also know that the solution to it is not something that occurs just in schools,” Bandlow said. “It is a community matter, and community support is so critical. We know there are some gray areas, and we would like to see some clarification, but we can also tell you that we are not waiting for that to happen; that we are ready today. The law was signed January 5. [Engravalle] started working on it January 6.”
District 37 Republican Assembly candidates John Aslanian and Keith Jensen issued a joint statement immediately following Vainieri Huttle’s remarks, saying, “Assemblywoman Valerie Huttle’s so called anti-bullying bill is little more than reactionary, big government liberalism that will do nothing to improve education and only add to the burden of teachers and school administrators.”
Jensen, a Fort Lee resident, was in attendance at the press conference Tuesday. He said he’s not opposed to anti-bullying legislation, especially in light of new technology and how invasive it can become, but he expressed concern about the cost of implementing the new law.
“I keep on pounding home how much it costs to run the school system in the state of New Jersey,” said Jensen, who along with Aslanian, are advocates of the “Fair School Funding” plan they say would increase state aid to District 37 by $163 million. “All they do is keep layering, and layering, and layering, and creating more and more bureaucracy. But this is common sense. Bullying is not great thing, and you’ve got to be able to address it. But fund it.”
The state legislators and Fort Lee school officials were joined at Fort Lee High School Tuesday by other advocates of the anti-bullying legislation, including representatives of Garden State Equality and Dr. Stuart Green, director of the New Jersey Coalition for Bullying Awareness and Prevention, who were also highly critical in their remarks of the state for what they see as a failure to provide clear guidelines on implementation of the new legislation.
Also joining the group was Jennifer Ehrentraut of Garden State Equality and the cousin of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University student who jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge in September prompting the new law.
Choking up slightly when she said her “cousin’s life was tragically cut short last year,” Ehrentraut said, “It’s not only up to the teachers and the legislators; it’s up to each and every one of us each and every day to be nice to each other—to be kind.”
“Those few moments that it takes [to report bullying] could be the matter of saving a life,” Ehrentraut said.
She also introduced Garden State Equality’s new anti-bullying hotline—1-877-NJBULLY, or text NJBULLY to 66746—“for anyone who’s being bullied or knows someone who’s being bullied.”