N.J. lawmakers support anti-bullying bill which may inhibit free speech
New Jersey lawmakers are bent on passing new, strong anti-bullying legislation amid the rash of teen suicides, but others say the bill’s wording is inadequate and can be used to harass teachers who express religious beliefs.
The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights encompasses both emotional harm and physical harm, with added criminal charges. It also establishes a “Week of Respect” annually, The Christian Post reported.
The process in formulating the bill included hearing the stories of bullied people. Matthew Zimmer, 16, was bullied for being gay, even by his teachers, one of whom called him gay in class. The principal never did anything about it, so Zimmer withdrew from school, The Washington Post reported.
Corey Bernstein, 15, was harassed and bullied in middle school, and his plight was ignored by school administrators and the principal, who would not admit that any problem existed, according to the Daily Record.
Some 160,000 students try to avoid school because of bullying, whether on campus or on the internet, The Washington Post reported. Assemblywoman Valerie Huttle told the Daily Record, “This is not a gay bill. This is for every kid.”
Implementation of bill
Under the new bill teachers, school staff and administrators must undergo bullying training, and administrators must record all bullying incidents and response actions taken. Every quarter, a school will receive a bully grade, The Christian Post said.
Administrators will also have to hire anti –bully specialists, and districts will have to institute anti-bullying courses, The Christian Post reported.
Bullying off school grounds, including online, are also covered in the bill. Ed Barocas of the American Civil Liberties Union noted this may pose legal challenges, The Washington Post said.
The bill will require an accompanying budget, which is slated for review by the state Senate’s budget committee on the following day, according to The Christian Post.
While there is overall agreement of a need for anti-bullying legislation, concern has been raised on the bill’s wording. Greg Quinlan of the New Jersey Family Policy Council told The Christian Post, “We need to put a culture of dignity and respect in schools,” but added that the bill contains flaws that can limit its effectiveness.
John Tomicki, executive director of the League of American Families opposed the bill saying that it is unwieldy and flawed. The Daily Record quotes Tomicki saying, “It requires significant redraft.”
Quinlan said the bill is not fully inclusive. It cites color, race, ancestry, national origin, religion, gender identity and expression relating to homosexuality and physical, mental and sensory disability which can trigger bullying, The Christian Post reported.
But Quinlan told the Christian Post, “Obesity is not on the list. Ex-gays like myself are not on the list. Bullying is bullying,” Quinlan said, stressing the need for all-inclusiveness in the bill language.
According to the staff of those who sponsor the bill, the list of groups is merely examples, and it also uses the phrase, “any other distinguishing characteristics,” The Christian Post reported.
Still, Quinlan said teachers and students will be denied their first amendment rights to express what they believe, fearing disciplinary action. For example, if a teacher would say, “There is no gay gene,” it could be construed as bullying. Or, expressing one’s faith could be seen as excluding or putting down other faiths, The Christian Post said.
Tomicki cited free speech and said the bill may violate the U.S. Constitution which protects this fundamental right. Others noted the added cost to implement the bill shouldered by districts that don’t have the budget, The Washington Post said.
In 2009 over one third of all U.S. students were bullied—half of them on a weekly or daily basis. Because of this, the state legislature has more than the required support for the bill with 28 Senate members and 46 assembly members, The Christian Post reported.
Nonetheless, Quinlan has set forth his own version of anti-bullying legislation which has no list and simply includes bullied characteristics. The model is easier to implement and does not have the burden of additional cost, The Christian Post reported.