NEWARK, N.J. — Does one second-grader saying another has "cooties" rise to the level of bullying? That is just one question emerging from new legislation prompted by the suicide of a Rutgers University student one year ago Thursday.
New Jersey's anti-bullying laws were tightened following the suicide of 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, who jumped off the George Washington Bridge on Sept. 22, 2010. Prosecutors have said his roommate used a webcam to spy on Clementi's same-sex liaison. He has been charged with bias intimidation and invasion of privacy.
Soon after Clementi's suicide, the New Jersey's Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act was passed and signed by Gov. Chris Christie in January. Advocates say it's one of the toughest of its kind in the nation.
Earlier this week, state Attorney General Paula Dow distributed a set of instructions to school and law enforcement officials on how to comply with the law.
The guidelines require schools to complete their investigations into harassment, intimidation or bullying within 10 school days, improve their reporting standards and compel schools and law enforcement to review their investigations with each other. Previously, schools often deferred their own inquiries into bullying until police finished an investigation.
Supporters say the guidelines are an important step in combatting bullying; others wonder if they go too far.
West Orange Schools Superintendent Anthony Cavanna said he supports the guidelines and emphasizes bullying prevention programs in his district, but the new rules have caused some confusion over what qualifies as bullying.
His staff grappled this week with whether a second-grader accusing another of having "cooties" needed to be reported under the new standards. In the past, Cavanna said, a child would be sent to the principal's office to discuss what kinds of behavior are hurtful or unacceptable.
The new guidelines, however, left school officials feeling obligated to fully understand the child's intent – was he just having a bad day and taking it out on the person nearest to him? Or was the recipient of the remark targeted for a reason, with the child intending him serious harm?
"Like most regulations that come down, the intentions are good, but what's the cost of the good intentions?" Cavanna said. "We now have a lot more people involved in making decisions than we used to, and if they're all spending time trying to figure out what's harassment and intimidation, they're not doing other things."
Also this week, Cavanna said, one student told a classmate he had "a big, fat head," and that also took a lot more work to determine it didn't meet the new reporting criteria.
A spokesman for the attorney general said the department hadn't received any formal complaints under the new guidelines from any school districts as of Thursday.
Supporters of the measure say bullying has become so pervasive that strict laws can save lives.
"To those critics who say it (the new guidelines) goes too far, we say: `Tough,'" said Steven Goldstein of Garden State Equality, who helped draft the state's anti-bullying legislation. "That's indeed what it's there for. The schools have no choice but to comply, and there shouldn't be a choice because lives are at stake."
Before, when schools were left up to their own self-monitoring and anti-bullying enforcement, most schools did nothing, Goldstein said.
Bullying has gotten nationwide attention recently, due in large part to Clementi's suicide, which touched off a conversation on the issue and prompted President Barack Obama, senators and celebrities to speak out.
In upstate New York, a state that doesn't have anti-bullying legislation, police are investigating the recent suicide of a 14-year-old Williamsville boy who had complained in an online video about being bullied over his sexuality.
In Massachusetts, five classmates accepted plea deals this year after being charged following the January 2010 suicide of bullied teen Phoebe Prince.
And in Clementi's case, his former roommate, Dharun Ravi, has pleaded not guilty to a 15-count indictment including a charge of the hate crime of bias intimidation, using a webcam to invade privacy and trying to cover up it up afterward.
Ravi's lawyer wrote in a brief filed in August that his client wasn't spying on Clementi. Lawyer Steven Altman said Ravi initially turned on his webcam from a friend's computer to see what was going on in the dorm room because he was concerned about whether the man Clementi had over might steal Ravi's iPad. He stopped watching "two seconds" after seeing the men kissing, Altman said.
Ravi is also accused of setting up his webcam to try to capture Clementi in a second liaison two days after prosecutors say he first viewed him on Sept. 19, 2010.