More mental health services, partnerships with organizations outside of schools and additional anti-bullying specialists are just some of the ways a group of community leaders is hoping to put an end to bullying.
The North Jersey Anti-Bullying Task Force brought together parents, teachers, students, administrators, child advocates and experts in a Zoom call on Thursday to recommend ways that school districts and government officials can better address instances of bullying.
Jane Clementi of Ridgewood, who co-founded the Tyler Clementi Foundation after her son's death by suicide in 2010 after a bullying incident at Rutgers University, chaired the task force, which was created by Rep. Josh Gottheimer, D-Wyckoff.
In a report released Thursday, the task force identified five main ways that the state's Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act could be improved:
- Redefine the New Jersey definition of bullying.
- Improve investigations into bullying incidents.
- Improve and expand training for teachers and staff.
- Incorporate mental health services into the school setting.
- Address cyberbullying earlier and beyond school settings.
Changing the names of the victim to "target" and the bully to "aggressor" is “more empowering” for the target and can cause encouragement that the aggressor’s behavior can change, Clementi said.
“We feel that motivation behind an aggressor’s actions is critical to identifying bullying behavior as well as considering the individual’s age or disability of the people involved … it also takes away the focus from the target and focuses more on the aggressor’s behavior so we can hopefully change those behaviors,” she said.
Many situations may fall outside of the bounds of a traditional harassment, intimidation and bullying (HIB) investigation, Clementi said. For example, a group of friends teasing one another is different from a group of students picking on a lone student.
The task force would also like to see more resources given to HIB investigations. Many anti-bullying specialists in school districts, who are responsible for investigating incidents of bullying, have other roles and can’t dedicate 100% of their time toward investigations.
Carla Mancuso, a task force member who works as a special education teacher at High Point High School, said that from her experience, an anti-bullying specialist can wear "many hats," from guidance counselor to vice principal.
"When something happens, it’s like going to an emergency room and pulling a doctor from the third floor who is doing his rounds to now come in and do an intake of the emergency victim," Mancuso said. "It doesn’t work. There’s too many starts and stops."
The group believes schools would benefit from having one or more specialists with mental health experience in a district whose sole responsibility is to manage all HIB cases. If a district-wide anti-bullying specialist isn’t feasible, the group would like to see "a distinct ABS role."
"Sometimes the schools are disincentivized to report these incidents because it goes against their reputation," Mancuso said. "The workload that is involved is incredible."
The current Anti-Bullying Bill of Right Act doesn’t require that a counselor or a mental health professional follow up with students involved in bullying incidents, said Sarah Amador, a task force member and a psychologist with Psychological Associates of North Jersey.
"Many aggressors have underlying personal challenges that may be motivating their aggressive act toward other students," Amador said. "Many targets experience actual trauma as a result of these bullying incidents. An incredible area of concern is that there isn’t a follow-up."
As a solution, the task force recommends offering mental health sessions directly in schools or through telehealth sessions, and conducting mental health screening programs for students who are at risk of being aggressors or targets or may be struggling with other mental health issues.
Recognizing that schools may not have the budget to fund additional mental health initiatives, the task force recommends creating more opportunities that allow school districts to take part in private-public partnerships and increase federal and state investment in these types of programs, Amador said.
To read the full report, go to gottheimer.house.gov and navigate to Latest News. A link to the report is contained in the press release.