Growth, Life, Stories Told

Why New Jersey’s anti-bullying law is both too much and not enough

A few boys started to pick on me a little when I was in the fifth grade. I was never a fighter; I always wanted to get along, and so I always tried to just laugh it away. Sometimes they were a little belligerent, and I tried to keep the peace by appeasing them. When that didn’t work I withdrew, often in tears, which only encouraged them.

There had been maybe 60 sixth graders in my elementary school, where the pecking orders had long been established. When we moved up to the middle school, our seventh grade class numbered more than 400. We boys had to figure out hierarchies anew, with all the one-upsmanship, displays of toughness, and putdowns that implies – made fierce by a puberty-fueled desire to impress the girls. But I was a late bloomer – boyish, scrawny, not chasing the girls yet. I was not tough and I still wouldn’t fight. So I was a frequent stooge for boys trying to impress others or salve their own feelings of inadequacy.

This boy was miserable.

The least of it was the taunting and name calling. If you drop the r sound from my last name it sounds like “gay,” so naturally I was routinely called James Gay. A few boys lisped the s. One boy even made up a little singsong taunt from it. Some boys cut right to the chase and called me a faggot.

The many times my books and folders were knocked sprawling from my hands for me to retrieve from under other students’ feet were not the worst of it either.

No, the worst was the physical abuse.

On the bus, several boys liked to flick their index fingers hard into my ear. My complaints to the driver got me nowhere. Sometimes I’d get lucky and get the seat behind the driver. The boys wouldn’t mess with me there.

At school, teachers and staff seldom visited one dim back hallway. After being deliberately tripped three times and then outright assaulted twice back there, I complained to the shop teacher whose classroom was around the corner. He said that he couldn’t help me unless he saw someone hurting me. I wanted to say, “Then come out of your dang classroom and look!” I finally gave up using that hallway and went the long way, which involved going outside and around the building.

The gym teachers had looking the other way down to a science as the bigger boys would deliberately pass the basketball right into my face, spike the volleyball into my head, pitch the baseball at my gut, run me down on the track, and so on. After showering one day, several boys forced me into the adjacent restroom, all of us still naked, and tried to shove my head into the toilet. I hollered loud enough that the teachers couldn’t ignore it, but when they came into the restroom they only told us to break it up. I refused to shower after that.

I dreaded going to school. I grew depressed and fearful, and withdrew deeply. It was bad enough that my dad, who is not the most emotionally astute man in the world, noticed that I wasn’t myself. I told him what was going on, and he said that it would continue until I fought back. He tightly duct-taped a roll of pennies and told me to carry it for the day it came to blows, as the weight of the pennies in my fist would make my punch hurt more. The pennies in my pocket actually made me feel a little better, which might have been Dad’s purpose all along. An assistant principal discovered my penny roll one day, called it a concealed weapon, and threatened to suspend me if I kept carrying it. Dad said that if I were suspended he would visit that assistant principal to find out why he allowed such bullying to go on in his school. I wondered why he didn’t just go visit the assistant principal anyway.

I needed more help than I got.

There seems to be greater awareness of the bullying problem in schools today. Many schools have anti-bullying programs. In particular, New Jersey is trying to address the problem by passing a sweeping and complex law called the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, which took effect Sept. 1. After reading my story, you may be surprised to learn that I have mixed feelings about this law. I applaud that it prescribes training for students, teachers, administrators, and even school board members in recognizing bullying and in their responsibility to try to stop it and report it when they see it. But it is too complicated to administer, defines bullying too broadly, fails to recognize bullying’s pernicious nature, and doesn’t offer any meaningful help directly to the victim.

The law starts to go sideways when it tells teachers they risk their licenses when they fail to report bullying. It adds layers of bureaucracy when it mandates that any report of bullying must be escalated to the principal, who must begin an investigation within one day and complete it within ten, and report all investigations to state government twice yearly. It also fails to fund the additional staff it requires – anti-bullying coordinators at the school-system level and an anti-bullying specialist and “safety team” at each school. Pity the existing guidance counselors and social workers whose workload just increased. I fear all of this will lead overworked staff to comply just enough to avoid the law’s penalties.

The law labels bullying as any act one student does to another that causes emotional or physical harm, but ignores bullying’s inherent imbalance of power. By the law’s definition a simple insult can be considered bullying, as can a straight up fight between two angry students. This could flood school officials with reports that aren’t really bullying, but that they have to investigate and handle as such anyway.

Meanwhile, a determined bully will quickly learn when and where to deal out abuse to avoid detection, and may instill such fear in victims that they will not speak up for fear of retaliation. No law is powerful enough to reach into every dark corner in which a bully can lurk.

In the end, victims need direct help that this law does not offer. They may need counseling to work through the depression and fear they feel. They may need help in setting and defending their personal boundaries. They may benefit from training in self defense, because fighting back may sometimes be their only recourse when their back is against the wall. Through these things they can start to feel more personally powerful, which will make them a less likely target in the future.

I wish my dad had enrolled me in martial arts in the seventh grade, or at least taught me how to fight. I would have benefited from seeing a therapist to help me work through my emotional pain, deal with my depression, and help me build my confidence. The middle school owed me teachers and administrators who took me seriously when I complained. Fortunately that’s just what I found when I escaped to the high school two years later. One day in the ninth grade one of my tormentors shoved me into my locker and shut the door. A custodian popped the lock when he heard me yelling and banging frantically. The teachers in the adjacent classrooms came to investigate and told an assistant principal what happened. I’m not sure what the assistant principal did to the boy, but he gave me a wide berth for a long time after that and never harmed me again. I got some of the help I needed, and nobody needed a law to compel it.

I’m still not tough, but I will stand up for myself today. It all started when I came to accept myself for who I am. Read that story.

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17 thoughts on “Why New Jersey’s anti-bullying law is both too much and not enough

  1. Kurt says:

    I’m sure part of the anti-bullying law that seems tough to swallow is part of a CYA mentality by school corporations to avoid being named in lawsuits that could stem from injury. Can’t say that I blame them for that. I have a whole new respect for you my friend. I managed to squeeze through with only being assualted once, in 6th grade, but I might have also had that one coming to me. Then I went to a small private school….I’d like to think that I could have handled myself at LaVille….but I can’t be certain.

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    • Thanks Kurt. Certainly part of this law’s thrust is to protect the schools, because they can say they followed the law and were thus doing everything required of them. I just wish this law offered more real help to the bullies and the victims.

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  2. Dani says:

    Amen.
    So sorry to hear you had such rough bullying experiences as a child. Kids (and adults) can be so cruel. Makes one wonder where all of that negative energy and need for power comes from.

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    • I’ve turned my experiences around and let them make me a better man. Most bullies feel powerless or angry somehow themselves and are just taking it out on people who will take it.

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  3. ryoko861 says:

    My husband could have written this. He was bullied alot in school (he’s from North Jersey, I’m from Central Jersey). Same crap you had to go through. He was a shy boy, just enjoyed the simple things in life. His hometown was a poor town of immigrants that worked at the paper mill. Bullying was just part of the school picture. He did retaliate when he got into high school. But it has left him emotionally scarred and we still have to deal with it sometimes. I was bullied sometimes as well, but I took matters into my own hands. After kicking Todd L square in the shins for taunting me for so long, the boys left me alone.

    I think dealing with the students involved is more the answer. Reporting it to the state isn’t going to get anyone anywhere other than statistics. DYFS and other child services are overwhelmed with domestic issues. The parents and the school officials need to address it on a psychological level with those involved. It’s not the 50’s any more where the child would come home with a black eye and the dad would just choke it up to typical school follies. Alot of it stems from kids either being abused at home or seeking attention. Or like you said making up for the inadequacies. I know of some parents that are definitely the root of a child acting out in school. Most schools have a zero tolerance rule now for bullying.

    I will admit, I’m glad I’m out of the school years. Mine are older and I only have to deal with one in county college which means I have to deal with moron teachers who think they know everything. These are the teachers that have never left the school system. They’ve lived and breathed it since Kindergarten. They, too, have their way of bullying. I’ve been tempted more than once to go in and have words with some of them for the way they treat the kids. Even directors are pompous asses at times. Give someone a little authority and they think they’re god.

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    • I agree, you have to deal with the students involved. Schools have to have an environment where that is expected and encouraged. My middle school was kind of a war zone; I think the teachers and administrators often felt powerless over the kids! It allowed a lot more nonsense to go on than ever should have.

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      • ryoko861 says:

        Definitely! It really has to be expected and encouraged and stressed that bullying will NOT be tolerated! Kids shouldn’t be afraid to go to school. Bad enough getting to go because they don’t like it, but add fear into the equation….

        When authority breaks down and the kids start to have control, then there’s a problem.

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  4. Stephanie says:

    Jim-

    Thanks for sharing this. I’m a So. Bend native, too, yearbook geek and yep, you guessed it, a victim of bullying. (went to HS w/ Kirsten P.) Now I’m a parent of two kids-both have been victims of middle school bullying. Fortunately, they had a great principal and I was on good terms with the school administration. I share your concerns with the New Jersey law-too much bureaucracy and not enough personal investment on the part of admin and teachers. The prevalent culture should be one in which faculty truly want kids to be safe and able to learn. The past few years here, in Indianapolis, really educated me on the intensity of bullying and the ability of faculty, staff, coaches, and county officials to ignore and/or minimize bullying (assualt) and its impact.

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    • Stephanie, thanks for chiming in. I’m sorry your kids have been bullied. But at least when a school’s administration is good, it trickles down to the teachers, and bullying problems can be more easily dealt with.

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  5. Janet Olson Chlebek says:

    Jim, I can relate. As you know in middle school is where I first meet you and many people that we continued on with until graduation of high school. My Elementary years were very sheltered and protected, middle school was a rude awakening for me since I was a shy, peaceful kind of girl. When I got to middle school many girls threatened to beat me and my best friend up for just looking at them and many boys would pinch our butts in the hallway during passing period. My best friend and I were just the kind of girls that didn’t defend ourselves and were almost like “deer in a head light” to the whole situation, we didn’t know to deal with it?,We would just console each other and it seemed to help.I remember the hall going to Orchestra that was very scary and was so relieved to finally make it in there safe. I didn’t continue with orchestra in 8th grade for that reason. Currently and have been throughout my dealings with kids in the school system very sensitive to students in my classroom who are quiet and non-aggressive and I always protect them. It does not take much for the teacher to enforce the no-bully policy.

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    • Janet, I had been sheltered and was naive, like you. The stuff I put up with in the 5th and 6th grade was minor compared to what I got in middle school, and I was just flat unprepared for how bad it got. I didn’t have a best friend coming in to middle school and felt very alone.

      That music hallway was not very well covered by teachers and staff, and a lot of nonsense could go on in there. Same for the hall that went from the gym out to the art/shop classes; that’s where I was assaulted.

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  6. Anonymous says:

    I’m sorry to learn about the abuse you experienced in school. It sounds as bad if not even worse than anything I experienced. However, as a gay man, I do favor laws like the one in New Jersey — not because I favor the expansion of the “nanny state” as some would it — but because bullying leads to an increase in suicide among those being bullied and because I think it is worth every effort to prevent this tragedy among gay youth and those (like yourself) who are straight but incorrectly perceived to be gay.

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  7. Lone Primate says:

    Yeah, boy, can I relate. I got picked on a lot in grade four, and some guys made life really rough on me from about grade seven to grade nine. It eased up after that. But you never quite leave it behind, and it leaves a lot of smouldering resentment. I got by on two things, basically… fantasizing about going down to the gym and coming back to class with an aluminum baseball bat (it was always aluminum! I guess I figured wood would break…) and making my objections known in no uncertain terms; and by reminding myself that school doesn’t last forever. And it didn’t. It seems to me that by the time you hit the latter years, even the bullies have taken their lumps and most normal human beings develop enough empathy to drop it. I even wound up pretty good friends with one guy who used to ride me.

    Reading your account, though, takes me right back. That sense of powerlessness, bleakness, the eternity of the situation as it seems at the time. “Anonymous” is right; you can be led to some pretty dark thoughts, both suicidal and homicidal.

    While it’s not perfect — what piece of human legislation ever is? — I applaud New Jersey’s effort. Like other challenges in the recent past — racism, drunk driving, sexual discrimination — the practicalities of the law are far, far less important than the FACT of the law itself. It says: this matters to society. Society is acting on this in an official capacity. Society no longer winks at this. And it’s the awareness of that, really, that causes change. If the fact that New Jersey now threatens litigation as a response to bullying and the turning of blind eyes to it saves just one kid from suffering what you did, or some parent finding that kid at the end of a rope, it’s entirely to the good in my books. Let the bullies sweat for a change; they’ll be better people for it.

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    • LP, glad to see you around these parts again.

      When I linked this on my Facebook page, people came out of the woodwork to tell their own stories of bullying — receiving and giving. It really touched a nerve. It was a pervasive problem among the people to whom I’m connected on Facebook.

      Yes, this imperfect law has promise in increasing awareness of the problem and gives a very flawed but not useless way of handling bullying incidents that are observed and reported. I still wish for greater help for the victim, however, so they can build confidence and personal power and stop being a victim.

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  8. Jennifer S says:

    It’s interesting how bullying essentially never changes. This post reminds me so much of what happened with our son. I think the administration and teachers all have good intentions, but they can only respond to incidents that are brought to their attention and… as you point out… only then does the bureaucracy crank into action.

    For students who are routinely bullied by groups of individuals, documentation becomes a real problem. A friend of my son’s has left public school for this reason… as soon as his parents finished documenting one bully’s actions, another bully would appear and the need to document new incidents would begin all over again. At a certain point, they decided they were finished letting their child feel isolated, abused and depressed in middle school just so the school could have proper paperwork prior to taking action.

    This was a very effective post. I’m glad you directed me to it… and thanks for the words of support about our situation. I do hope we did the right thing, and that our son’s come out stronger and smarter and more able to defend himself in a peaceful way. Eighth grade started a few weeks ago… and so far this problem has not recurred. I will keep taking my son’s emotional temperature so he knows I’m here to help any time he needs me.

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    • The difference between my middle school and high school were night and day around bullying. The high school had no comprehensive program — they just had administrators who identified the troublemakers and bullies and dealt with them consistently, swiftly, and firmly. I didn’t entirely escape bullying in high school but it was down probably 90% over what I experienced in middle school.

      What I’m saying here is that this documenting stuff is nonsense. The administrators know who the bullies are, and probably know how to deal with them too. So the documentation strikes me as a delay tactic or a smoke screen, which I find puzzling and disturbing.

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