New anti-bullying bill of rights raises concerns

October 31, 2011 8:17:08 PM PDT
Robert Jones, 11, of Bayonne, NJ, got into an argument after school on the playground. Several were children were involved but only one shoved him to the ground, 12-year old Liam Johnson.

"They were like pushing me and not letting me leave and tugging at my bike," Robert explains.

When asked about what happened, Liam said it was unfair to call him a bully. Following the confrontation, Johnson was suspended at school and punished at home. But that was not the end of it.

Robert's mother filed criminal charges against Liam and one other child. The Johnson family say she is using the state's new law against bullying to manipulate the system.

"I'm not one to say let kids be kids. He was punished at school and at home but this was taken way too far," Liam's father, Patrick Johnson, says.

Under New Jersey's brand new anti-bullying bill of rights, any teacher who sees or hears of an offensive incident must file a written report within two days. Every school must also have a designated anti-bullying specialist who then opens an investigation.

But many educators have complained there are no clear guidelines on how to specifically implement the law. So teachers are left to follow the law as they see fit, potentially Running the risk of making bullies out of children who are not.

In Ridgewood's Benjamin Franklin middle school, a student now has a record of committing an act of harassment, intimidation and bullying, also known as H.I.B., for calling a friend an offensive name.

This type of incident has been disappointing for Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D- Bergen County) who co-sponsored the anti-bullying legislation.

Although she is proud of the law, saying it is worth it even if it saves just one child's life, she's unhappy with the way the Department of Education has been enforcing it.

"You have to use professional common sense and age appropriateness," she says.

But in order for the bill of rights to succeed, a more concrete set of guidelines might be necessary.