Bergen County Schools Stand Up To Bullying

As the course of the 2016-2017 school year falls into its familiar routine, too often either a new pattern emerges, or an old one rears its ugly head. That pattern is the return of harassment, intimidation and bullying (HIB) within the educational system.

As a way of focusing attention on HIB, New Jersey has designated the week beginning the first Monday in October as the Week of Respect throughout the state, and the third week of the month has been named School Violence Awareness Week. However, during the entire month school districts can highlight and educate students on positive behaviors both in the school structure as well as in outside social situations.

HIB in schools is as old as the educational system itself, but with the rise of social media, the problem has grown in organization and intensity. Where years ago if kids who were too smart or not smart enough, if your clothes weren’t from the “in” designer, if you were too tall, too short, overweight, thin, or from the wrong ethnic group, you became a target, HIB now includes all of that and more. Children with different sexual orientation or gender identity issues, and kids with learning disabilities from dyslexia to autism to ADHD, are all easy prey to those who have their own self-esteem issues and choose to attack others. Now, with Facebook, Twitter, Snap Chat, and other social networks, the ease and viciousness of attacks on children is terrifying.

In 2010-2011, New Jersey worked through passage of a Bill of Rights to combat bullying, and since that time school districts statewide have formulated their individual plans and programs to do the same. Bergen County school districts have taken the necessary steps to comply with the State’s mandate and also to create a safe environment where children can learn without fear.

A look at some of the County’s school districts shows the different approaches taken for compliance with the law. Hello Bergen thought it might be helpful during this month dedicated to respect, to share some of the innovative avenues many districts have explored in an effort to maintain a safe and nurturing educational environment for students.

Each town in the county has formulated its own policy consistent with the State law. Some have even taken their policy to a higher level. Cliffside Park for example, has written an anti-hazing policy to cover instances on school premises, school buses, or at any school function. Most towns have also created guidelines for acceptable student behavior. Accepting that there can be extenuating circumstances regarding HIB, they usually include a policy of consequences, and factors for determining those consequences. Some of the factors include: the age of those involved as well as their maturity and development levels, whether the behavior is recurring, and the severity of the behavior.

The Allendale school district’s HIB policy also includes many of the same measures and has added in another type of harassment issue to their Discipline/Code of Conduct Policy: dating violence. With domestic abuse an ever-growing problem for adults, the importance of curbing violent tendencies, either verbal or physical, in dating situations cannot be stressed enough.

Recognizing the schools must also step up their monitoring and remedial measures; Englewood has instituted policy to make adjustments in schedules, modification in hallway traffic, and even in the patterns students travel to and from the school campus.

The Fair Lawn school system has an online pamphlet which provides a parental guide to bullying and harassment. In it they offer some warning signs to check for if you think your child may be the victim of bullying. Some of those signs include: losing interest in school work, mood swings, getting into fights or arguments, unexplained bruises, not wanting to be involved in social activities and pulling away from family and friends.

The problem of bullying is not exclusive to the higher grades or older children. Bullying can and often does begin in elementary school. Shy, smaller children are often the easiest target for a bully. That is one reason most towns will have an anti-bullying specialist in each school, as well as a district-wide coordinator. The city of Garfield even has anti-bullying specialists as part of their Preschool programs.

Though not required by law, Anti-Bullying Specialist Certificate courses are available to prepare for the different challenges that might occur over the course of a school year. First, there must be a complete understanding of the law itself. While every case of bullying is different, there are some techniques in dealing with a bully that can apply to many situations, and learning those techniques and some proven strategies can make a huge difference in deescalating a volatile occurrence.

If a complaint has been made or a HIB situation observed, an investigation must take place. Knowing the requirements of the investigative process is essential in dealing with the overall outcome of the complaint. Concerns such as student privacy, the handling of evidence, record keeping, dealing with media, and integrating the local authorities into the investigations need to be handled in a professional and legal manner.

Fort Lee is one of the towns whose website also includes the timeline for reporting and investigating a HIB complaint. The years when bullying complains were swept under the table are gone, as transparency is now a necessity in the digital world.

School safety teams are another source of protection for students, as they can educate the community, the parents, the staff and the students in ways to address and prevent bullying. The Hasbrouck Heights School Safety Team focuses on operational procedures throughout the educational system, deals with complaints and reviews and updates policies to prevent bullying of students. These teams usually include the Principal of each school, or someone designated by the Principal, an Anti-Bullying Specialist, a teacher and a parent of a student from the school.

Lyndhurst, in addition to providing their policy and contact information, has also initiated a Q&A section on the school district website. The subjects discussed are more specific in nature and cover all facets of the district’s HIB policy. The extensive dialogue covers parents’ rights, training for teachers, substitute teachers, staff, contractors providing service to students and volunteers, as well as covering the entire investigation process, public reporting, the role of students and the Board of Education. There can be little doubt this section on their website saves many phone conversations between parents and school administrators.

There are times when another student or a member of the community may be a witness to bullying or harassment but may not want to become personally involved. The Mahwah school district has incorporated an incident report form on their website to be filled out anonymously. While formal disciplinary action may not be taken based on the report, it may bring some attention to the incident and initiate an investigation or closer observance of the involved parties.

In towns such as Palisades Park, where a large portion of the community may not have English as their first language, HIB incident reports can be downloaded in other languages such as Korean or Spanish.

In the policy instituted for Teaneck, the definitions of bullying are broken down by type: physical, verbal, indirect bullying which could include spreading rumors, excluding children from groups, or ganging up on kids, and cyber bullying. Their policy also brings the parents into the conversation not only from a victim’s standpoint, but also from the perspective of what are the warning signs that your own child might be a bully.

There are no easy answers to the problem of harassment, intimidation and bullying anywhere in life, but in the school environment keeping children safe and focused on learning is imperative to their physical, mental, and sociological well-being. The school districts of Bergen County have taken the anti-bullying law and crafted individual policies to promote a positive school experience for all students. All parents should become familiar with the policies of their school district and determine if the policy needs review or modification.

Bullying is an issue of concern every day of the year, but with the statewide focus on it this month, there is no better time to read beyond the headlines and find out what is happening in your community.

Kath Galasso

Wordworker, Observer, Force of Nature @KatsTheory

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