11/7/2010

By Emily Smith

In the wake of the tragedy at Rutgers University, the New Jersey legislature announced a proposal this week that would seek to stop the bullying that allegedly led Tyler Clementi to take his own life.[1]  Called the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, this measure seeks to require schools and their employees to report harassment to police.  However, it goes further than any prior New Jersey statute.  It requires reportage even if the bullying occurs off school property and holds employees responsible through disciplinary action if they do not.  The proponents of this initiative hope that it this tough new law, in fact, the most sturdy anti-bullying in the nation, will help those like Clementi. 

            While the timing of this proposal coincided with the one month anniversary of Clementi's death, the bill had actually been in the works for over a year.  New Jersey lawmakers, such as Senator Diane Allen (R-Burlington) and Valerie Vanieri Huttle (D-Bergen) admit that “students who endure intimation in schools” were utterly failed by their eight prior years' worth of legislation.  Many in the state even anticipated the kind of tragedy that occurred.  While earlier efforts, “broke some ground” said Allen, “[it was] clearly not enough.” 

            This new law would include four main initiatives.  First, it would require new teachers, school board members and administrators to complete an anti-bullying training program.  Second, it would discipline those who fail to investigate bullying, and third include harassment, intimidation and bullying as causes for student expulsion.  Finally, it would mandate superintendents to deliver reports on the level of “violence, vandalism, harassment, intimidation or bullying’’ within the district, grading the schools and districts efforts to combat bullying. 

            While these seem like powerful steps in the right direction, these proposals fail to consider the reality of a teacher's day.  Teachers' attentions are already divided.  They must worry about and juggle unruly classrooms, low test scores, achievement benchmarks and budget cuts.  They are charged with educating, mentoring, disciplining, babysitting and counseling dozens of children.  Now, legislatures are adding policing to that list.  While a teacher might be justifiably called to police her own classroom, this new role requires a teacher patrol even beyond the schoolroom walls.  If a teacher fails to report bullying of any kind and anywhere, these sanctions are threatened.  This is an incredible demand on an already overburdened profession. 

            It is true that teachers do spend more time with their students than even perhaps their own parents, and are definitely more aware of the dynamics between these children.  If a teacher is cognizant of bullying, they are in a powerful position.  They have the ability to get a student help.  A failure to act in the face of a child's pain should draw question.  Therefore, if sanctions are the only way to motivate teachers into acting, then perhaps their use is justified.         

            Nevertheless, these new proposals inherently direct attention away from the goals of the classroom.  Teachers are there to teach.  While it is true that sometimes the pressures of bullying can get in the way of that learning, thereby justifying some level of prevention by the teacher, something at some point is bound to give.  With so many demands, a teacher cannot devote her full attention anywhere. 

            In the end, however, the bigger problem with New Jersey's legislation is its misplaced focus.  It places blame on the schools and leaves parents, and the students themselves, totally out of the equation.  Some effort must be made to hold them more accountable.  This is a better solution than scapegoating an underpaid and overwhelmed profession.  Thus, while it’s tragic that the death of Clementi and others are the result of these overburdened mentors, punishing teachers for the acts of bullies is not a perfect solution.