New Jersey on Thursday enacted the nation’s toughest law against bullying and harassment in schools, three and a half months after the suicide of a Rutgers University student drew national attention to the issue.
The law spells out a long list of requirements, including the appointment of specific people in each school and district to run antibullying programs; the investigation of any episodes starting within a day after they occur; and training for teachers, administrators and school board members. Superintendents must make public reports twice a year detailing any episodes in each school, and each school will receive a letter grade to be posted on its Web site.
The law, which goes into effect at the start of the next school year, lists harassment, intimidation or bullying as grounds for suspension or even expulsion from school. It applies to public schools, and portions of it apply to public colleges.
A bill had been in the works since 2009, but it gained momentum last fall. It passed both houses of the Legislature on Nov. 22, with just one dissenting vote, and Gov. Chris Christie signed it into law on Thursday. The New Jersey School Boards Association endorsed the law, concluding that schools could largely carry it out with existing resources.
“This is one of the great civil rights laws in New Jersey history, and to have a fairly conservative Republican governor sign it sends a resounding signal to other states,” said Steven Goldstein, chairman and chief executive of Garden State Equality, a gay rights group, who was involved in drafting the law. “It’s also a major achievement for bipartisan governance in New Jersey.”
On Sept. 22, Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers, jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge; three days earlier, officials have said, his roommate surreptitiously streamed video of him in an intimate encounter with another man. While it remains unclear what role the video may have played in Mr. Clementi’s suicide, news coverage of the episode gave added impetus to efforts to enact laws against bullying and harassment.
“No question, that tragedy and a string of other suicides in the fall by school kids gave it momentum,” said State Senator Barbara Buono, Democrat of Middlesex County, a prime sponsor of the bill. “The idea is just to make the climate of school one of tolerance and respect.”
Forty-five states have laws against bullying, and New Jersey has had one since 2002, including a 2007 amendment covering cyberbullying. New Jersey becomes the fifth state to adopt a new law in the past year; New York was among the others.
“Other states have bits and pieces of what this New Jersey law has, but none of them is as broad, getting to this level of detail, and requiring them, step by step, to do the right thing for students,” said Sarah Warbelow, state legislative director at the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights group. Many states, she said, do not even offer the protections of the 2002 New Jersey law, which made it a crime to bully or harass on the basis of race, sex, sexual and gender identity or disability.