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Is New Jersey’s Anti-Bullying Law Just Another Over-Reaction?

Steven J. Richardson
Bankruptcy, Collections, Student Loan, DUI and Traffic Court attorney in Woodbury, NJ.
Comments (2)
As I reported yesterday, New Jersey's Anti-Bullying Law has gone into effect. Many people are saying "about time," while others are saying it is an over-reaction by lawmakers. It arose out of a public outcry over the suicide of a Rutgers University freshman, Tyler Clementi, nearly a year ago, by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. His roommate, Dharun Ravi, stands charged with invasion of privacy and bias intimidation. He faces up to 10 years in jail if convicted. When I read stories about this "Bill of Rights," I can't help but get a sense of déjà vu about the proposal of Caylee's Laws in states across the country. In a July post I questioned the need for a Caylee's Law and whether it was just another legislative case of closing the barn door after the horse has escaped.

The difference here is where Caylee's Laws came out of a fully adjudicated criminal case where facts were known, the anti-bullying law was inspired by an ongoing prosecution where the facts are anything but clear. This was pointed out by Philadelphia Inquirer journalist Michael Smirconish in his column today.  He states that the widely circulated version of the story is that Ravi and a female student, maliciously and on more than one occasion, used a webcam to spy on Clementi while he was in an intimate encounter with another man. Supposedly, Clementi was so embarrassed by all this that he committed suicide. Ravi stands accused of exposing Clementi's sexual orientation to humiliate and intimidate him.

However, those facts are not all that certain. The defense is stating that:
  • there was no sexual encounter, nor any recording of a sexual encounter;
  • Clementi may have been depressed before he arrived at Rutgers, in part because of his own mother's reaction to his sexual identity; and
  • Ravi had said in one online exchange that he really didn't care about Clementi's orientation ("I'm not really angry or sad . . .").

I agree that bullying is bad and needs to be dealt with more pro-actively by schools and school districts. But the solution to the problem should not be a political response to a tragic incident, especially one where the facts are far from clear! Voting on my Facebook page is trending towards an opinion that the law will either be ineffectual, or not effectual enough. What do you think? Do we need this law? Will it be effective? Does it go too far (or not far enough)? Leave your opinions in a comment below or vote on my Facebook page.

2 Comments:
David: Thanks for the insightful comment! I too am hopeful that the law will be successful and implemented with a healthy dose of common sense. If this gets too politicized, it could do more harm than good.
Posted by Steven J. Richardson on September 16, 2011 at 10:27 AM
Steven, I agree with the spirit of the bill, but I think parts of it are excessive. A lot of parents feel that schools have been grossly negligent about dealing with bullies, so I support all the reporting guidelines and the appointment of an anti-bullying specialist. Yes, it will cost some money, but for all the money that NJ schools spend, it's irrelevant if children are too afraid to come to school. What I have a problem with is the expansive and vague definition of 'bullying'. To me, bullying is a pattern of assault, theft, property destruction, or other unlawful acts against a person. From everything I know about this bill, its unclear whether there needs to be a pattern of behavior for it to be be construed as bullying, or just a single act. To make matters worse, the bill considers name-calling, gossip, and social exclusion to be bullying, although all three are legal in the adult world. I think that in the end, the effect of the bill will be very district-dependent. Some districts will use common sense, read through the allegations of bullying, and take action only when there is clear evidence of a student being seriously harassed. Other districts will undoubtably have zero-tolerance policies, where any touching or criticism of another student will warrant suspension.
Posted by David Wainwright on September 16, 2011 at 02:22 AM

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