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What's Wrong With the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights

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BULLYING GUIDE
alamy

Please circle the correct answer. In New Jersey, a bully is someone who:

a. Pulls Kyle's shorts down in gym.
b. Starts an "I hate John" Facebook page.
c. Sends the following text message to Jacob: "You suck #@$%"
d. Scolds Erin in front of class for botching her midterm.

The answer? It all depends. But here in the Garden State, thanks to the recently passed "Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights," any of the above transgressions brought to the school's newly appointed "anti-bullying specialist" --usually a school psychologist or guidance counselor with a new designation, additional responsibilities, and no new resources --must be thoroughly investigated to find out if it rises to the level of harassment, intimidation, or bullying (HIB, to insiders.) For the specialist, that means interviewing all suspects and witnesses, checking security cameras if possible, and going over relevant text messages or Facebook postings to determine if the incident is raw conflict or the more serious HIB, all within 10 days. The documentation and findings are turned over to the Superintendant of Schools and members of the Board of Education, who've also been trained to identify the behavior, and who are required to evaluate the results of the investigations.

It doesn't stop there. The law requires schools to train staff about bullying, to introduce anti-bullying programs, and to form a school safety team. Teachers and coaches can be charged with bullying, and alleged misbehavior that takes place outside of school must also be investigated. Public universities in the state are required to create policies against bullying and to instruct students to obey a code of conduct against bullying. The law is regarded as the toughest in the nation.

If all this sounds exhausting, imagine being the school administrator whose responsibility is stopping kids from acting like kids. "Each investigation takes two to three days," says Jeff Heaney, Assistant Principal at the Lawton C. Johnson Summit Middle School in Summit, NJ, and the school's anti-bullying specialist. "We've had 18 investigations so far this year," he told me, four weeks after the school year began.

The law sprung from the best intentions. Draft legislation had been circulating in the NJ State House for months, but the September, 2010 suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, apparently in response to his roommate surreptitiously filming him in bed with another boy--and streaming it live for all to see--moved the law up the legislative agenda. The NJ State Assembly passed the bill in November, Governor Christie signed it in January of 2011, and it went into effect at the start of this school year.

Bullies are an easy target. Anyone who has ever been bullied remembers their tormenter. In my case, there was the sadistic Sharonn, who in kindergarten made it her mission to alternately harass and befriend me, depending on the day of the week. It's Monday? She's nice, offering to sharpen my pencil and get me a graham cracker. Tuesday? She wipes her nose on my dress, pinches my calves at recess, twists my hair at circle time--all out of sight of a teacher or other adult who might step in to stop it. And so it went, a day of peace following one of war, culminating in my Aunt Karol's offhand remark, when she picked me up from school one day that the smiling, sweet-faced six-year old who waved gently when I hopped in the car "seemed like a nice girl." It was like Rosemary's Baby: even my own flesh and blood didn't believe she was the devil incarnate.

Bullies are universally loathed because their casual cruelty leaves a scar on your soul. But New Jersey's exhaustive law, which elevates everyday conflict into a state of emergency, seems both ill-conceived and a waste of scarce resources.

To start, the law is heavy on paper work and light on consequences. Public schools and districts here are "graded" already on a variety of measures--graduation rates, NJASK scores, proficiency levels--and reported incidents of harassment, intimidation and bullying now will be factored into that grading. It's not clear how moving a school from an A- to a B+ on account of its high bullying rates will stop actual kids from being cruel. Reduce funding? That's already been done. And anyway, fewer resources would hardly help schools do a better job.

Also, the law asserts that school officials who fail to investigate, "or who should have known of an incident" can be disciplined. But penalizing anti-bullying specialists for failing to investigate or predict future misconduct seems most likely to trigger fruitless investigations. Like the ER doctor who orders a CAT scan and MRI when presented with a broken finger, the school official who faces penalties for not interrogating kids will probably make it his mission to inspect every last ill-advised text, and you can hardly blame him.

As well, the law overlooks the opportunity cost of all this probing. While the guidance counselor, or school psychologist, or vice-principal is hunched over her desk transcribing obscene text messages and filing paperwork, she isn't engaging with students or building trust or walking the halls to witness what's actually going on. At the Summit Middle School, Assistant Principal Heaney has been a vocal advocate for community service. Now the school's anti-bullying specialist, and on the line for upholding the state mandate, Mr. Heaney will be hard pressed to give community service equal attention. What's more, having to call parents to tell them their son or daughter is under investigation for having posted something dumb on Facebook is unlikely to engender good will with parents.

And the bullies themselves? According to State Assemblyman Michael Carroll, the law makes "absolutely no mention of penalties for the actual perp--the bully." Instead, the school districts themselves are subject to lawsuits from disgruntled parents who can make the case that the school ignored bullying. It's "putting taxpayers on the hook for substantial losses," Carroll wrote me in an email.

The law also seems out of sync with science on the teenage brain. A decades-long study carried out by the National Institute of Mental Health revealed that emotional development and impulse control are not fully developed until the mid-20s. "The parts of the brain responsible for more 'top-down' control, controlling impulses, and planning ahead--the hallmarks of adult behavior--are among the last to mature," the study found.

For those of us living with actual teenagers, this finding helps explain why our child who aced the chemistry exam in the morning took a swing at his little brother afterschool. It should also help school officials and legislators realize that composing and sending a mean text, full of slurs and epithets, or an "inappropriate" photo, takes all of six seconds, not nearly enough time for most teenagers to contemplate the consequences of their action. And now our anti-bullying bill of rights will see to it that their thoughtless indiscretion is documented and filed with the state.

If the legislature were serious about preventing the kinds of tragedies we saw at Rutgers a year ago, it would acknowledge the brain research and take a different approach. Suicide is the third leading cause of death among adolescents. Here, teenagers' impulsive tendencies have the worst outcomes: in a fit of misery or fury, some kids with the tools at their disposal--a gun, a cliff, a bridge--take a devastating, irrevocable step. This is why Cornell University last year installed 7-foot metal fences around its mesmerizing and deadly gorges, where six students killed themselves during the 2009-2010 school year. Tyler Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge, outside New Jersey's jurisdiction. But the Victory Bridge over Raritan Bay was the launching point for two suicides in July 2008. Erecting fences around this bridge may not be as sexy as introducing a newfangled bill of rights, but it might save more lives.

Perhaps this tough approach to bullies will mark the beginning of a new era of tolerance and mutual respect among children and adolescents. William Cole, a school psychologist and anti-bullying specialist at the Normandy Park Elementary School in Morristown, NJ, is hopeful that the law might mark a cultural shift towards kindness. "Young people are so desensitized to how they talk to each other," he told me. "Law or no law, anything that can help that is a bonus."

I wouldn't disagree. But to promote lasting civility and kindness in children, the adults around them might have to take the lead. How can we expect kids to know better than to berate and belittle their peers when a Presidential hopeful suggests the Fed Chairman could be strung-up in Texas for treason, when our governor barks "that's none of your business!" to one of his constituents, when their own parents belt out "you're blind!" at the teenager refing a basketball game? I'm all for teaching kindness and civility and mutual respect. But maybe we should start with the grown-ups.