Anti-bullying bill: Did NJ go too far?

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 Reporter Chris Jansing posed the question on NBC Nightly News last Wednesday (Sept, 7, 2011).  Her report focused on the implementation of New Jersey’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, signed into law January 6, 2011, by Gov. Chris Christie.

Both houses of the New Jersey legislature passed the anti-bullying bill in November 2010, with strong bipartisan support and wide margins.  Driven by the highly publicized case of homophobic cyber-bullying, resulting in the suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, the law is considered the strongest, most comprehensive anti-bullying legislation passed so far in any of the 50 states, as governments attempt to address  social problems with stringent laws.

Several sources included in Jansing’s report cited the unintended consequence of adding strain on school systems imposed by the new anti-bullying bill — systems already dealing with a host of social problems in addition to violence and bullying in schools.  Specifically, they pointed to the additional training requirements, the appointment of anti-bullying specialists in each school and the manadatory requirement to report all incidents of bullying.  [pullquote]Is zero tolerance blocking flexibility right up front?[/pullquote]
The issue not addressed so far is whether yet another “Zero-Tolerance” policy is the wisest approach to social problems.  In its laudable, swift passage of the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, did the legislators have to impose a zero-tolerance policy, which inherently diminishes the ability of teachers and administrators to use wisdom and discretion in incidents which are unique and complex?

Is the zero-tolerance approach to social problems just another example of “get tough on crime” laws which provide emotional satisfaction to voters and policymakers, but which bring a host of unintended results and court orders?  One need look no further than the crisis in prison overcrowding, which can be traced directly to the passage of “get tough” policies such as “three strikes and you’re out,” or mandatory sentences for specific offenses.

Certainly, bullying in schools and communities, cyber-bullying and violence of all kinds demand swift and wise responses.  But the question should be asked:  why not address child welfare through a range of options — including mediation, peer counseling, anti-bullying curricula such as this and this and books — as part of broader focus on creating what Dr. Tom Cavanagh has called a “culture of care” in schools?

Raising these issues about zero tolerance policies is not intended to detract from the value of the landmark legislation now being implemented in New Jersey.  I applaud this bold and comprehensive effort to address the range of social problems posed by bullying, harassment and violence system-wide. In fact, maybe these actions in New Jersey will play a role in “helping seat-of-the-pants peacemakers see they are not alone.”