According to national survey results, bullying affects approximately 30% of students in the United States, whether they are bullies, targets, or both. Bullying may be physical (hitting or punching), verbal (name-calling or teasing), emotional (intimidation through gestures or social exclusion), or, increasingly, cyberbullying (sending insults or threats through electronic communication). Research shows that by creating a climate of fear and disrespect in schools and adversely impacting student learning, bullying negatively impacts not only those directly involved, but also the bystanders to this behavior. Those who are bullied are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide, while those who bully are at risk of other antisocial or violent behavior.
New Jersey school districts have been officially required to take measures to prevent and respond to bullying since 2002, when the State's first anti-bullying statute, N.J.S.A. 18A:37-13, was enacted. In 2007, in L.W. v. Toms River Regional Schools Board of Education, which ELC joined as an amicus, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that a school district can be sued for damages, under the Law Against Discrimination (LAD), for not responding reasonably to bias-based student-on-student bullying and harassment that creates a hostile educational environment. Relief under the LAD is limited to students who are targeted for bullying based on a characteristic protected by the law, such as race, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.
Following the L.W. decision, the State created the New Jersey Commission on Bullying in Schools to study and recommend ways to strengthen New Jersey's approach to the problem. Through its active participation in the New Jersey Coalition for Bullying Awareness and Prevention, a coalition of advocacy organizations, government agencies, and service providers whose goal is to eliminate bullying in New Jersey's schools, ELC was invited to serve on the law committee established to advise the Commission.
The Commission issued a comprehensive report in 2009, establishing a road map for the legal and policy reforms needed to combat bullying in New Jersey's schools. That report heavily influenced the drafting of New Jersey's "Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act," which was signed into law on January 5, 2011 and is considered to be the strongest anti-bullying legislation in the country.
Under the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act, effective in the 2011-2012 school year, all New Jersey school districts must strengthen their standards and procedures for preventing, reporting, investigating and responding to incidents of harassment, intimidation, and bullying (HIB) of students, both in school and off school premises. In addition, school districts must comply with enhanced public reporting and training requirements, appoint an Anti-Bullying Specialist and Safety Team at every school, and appoint an Anti-Bullying Coordinator for every district. The Department of Education also has increased responsibilities under the law, including requirements to investigate HIB complaints that have not been adequately addressed at the local level and to create and administer a Bullying Prevention Fund.
ELC priorities in this area include education about and enforcement of the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, providing legal assistance in bullying and harassment cases, and expanding a pool of trained attorneys willing to handle cases pro bono on behalf of children who are bullied in school.