This article examines the challenges of student bullying and sets forth various New York and New Jersey initiatives designed to prevent bullying. School Administrators are encouraged to compare these prevention techniques to their own policies and consider utilizing some of the methods.
On September 27, 2017, an 18-year-old student, Abel Cedeno, stabbed and killed a classmate at the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation and seriously injured another. The killing was the first in two decades in a New York City public school. Cedeno’s crimes allegedly stemmed from bullying he endured by two classmates due to his perceived sexual orientation. According to Cedeno, the bullying, which involved homophobic slurs, had been ongoing since the beginning of the school year. Witnesses allege that the two bullies often hit Cedeno during class. Individuals in the community believe that the school was responsible for the incident because it failed to prevent and remedy the bullying Cedeno was exposed to.
Oversights and Underreporting in Schools
The Bronx high school incident raised many questions concerning bullying prevention in schools. Earlier this year, the police department recorded 11 public safety incidents, two of which resulted in arrests for assault in the Bronx High School. Further, in a survey conducted in 2016, only 55% of students at the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation stated that they felt safe in the school hallways, bathrooms, locker areas and cafeterias. This survey revealed a 19% decline from prior year. This incident and the school’s failure to properly address it highlights the importance of bullying prevention.
In July 2012, New York’s Dignity for All Students Act (“DASA”) was implemented in public schools throughout New York State. This purpose of this Act is to implement a zero-tolerance policy in public schools, which prohibits: intimidation; taunting; harassment; discrimination and bullying while on school property, a school bus, and/or at school functions. Similarly, New Jersey implemented an Act in 2011 to address and combat student bullying.
In October 2017, the New York State Office of the State Comptroller State Education Department issued a report of its audit titled Implementation of the Dignity for All Students Act. The audit was performed pursuant to the Comptroller’s authority set forth in the New York State Constitution. The published Report provides the results and recommendations that schools can use as resources to effectively manage its operations with respect to bullying. A key finding for the 2016-2016 school year was that various New York State schools (excluding New York City) reported 16,398 incidents of discrimination and harassment, and 2,472 cyberbullying incidents.
A review of the schools’ documentation revealed that the schools were underreporting incidents and that they were unable to identify which incidents were reported to the Department. Moreover, some incident records lacked essential details that were required in the reports. The schools were also unaware of the retention requirements and therefore, failed to comply with record retention obligations. In light of the Department’s report and recommendations, various New York public school districts recently set forth tactics utilized to combat student bullying.
Prevention Initiatives: New York
In order to comply with DASA, the Department recommends that New York schools develop a risk assessment program, which incorporates known and suspected weaknesses in DASA implementation. The program also sets forth sufficient resources to promote school compliance. In addition, the Department recommends that schools partner with other initiatives in the area to enhance training. Such efforts include: identifying school and district-level resources to facilitate proper electronic reporting and record retention; and ensuring that training focuses on the details that are required in incident investigation documentation.
Lindenhurst Union Free School District implements bullying programs at the elementary level that emphasizes the strengthening of individual character. The school encourages its students to be “up-standers as opposed to bystanders” with respect to bullying. The school reinforces these concepts at the secondary level through the use of extracurricular clubs and activities aimed at bullying prevention. These clubs and activities include interactive anti-bullying presentations. The school district’s board of education set a goal to establish an anti-bullying task force.
Roosevelt Middle School utilizes student culture meetings to discuss DASA. During these meetings, students and faculty members discuss the rights for all students and the zero-tolerance policy regarding discrimination, harassment, bullying or intimidation. Following these meetings, the school publishes the takeaways from the meetings in the school newsletter and parental information pamphlets. The school also has a “Project S.A.V.E.” group, which coordinates a poster contest in art classes where students are able to draw or paint their best anti-bullying posters to win prizes and display their artwork throughout the building.
A primary focus for schools in New York is to create a positive school climate and culture. Schools are encouraged to engage students in classroom and school activities. For example, at Sachem High School in New York, programs and initiatives include “Challenge Day, Unity Day, bullying awareness campaigns,” assemblies that address bullying, student-to-student mentorship programs, peer leadership activities, and lessons involving school staff. The school purports to have seen a drastic change in cyberbullying over the past five years as a result of these actions.
Prevention Initiatives: New Jersey
New Jersey has also employed initiatives to address student bullying. On January 5, 2011, New Jersey implemented the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act for public schools. The purpose of the Act is to strengthen standards and procedures of bullying prevention, reporting, and investigations. In addition, the Act aims to improve school responses to harassment, intimidation and bullying (“HIB”) of students that occur on school property and off school grounds. Under this Act, school districts and charter schools are obligated to provide information on practices for the prevention, intervention and remediation of HIB in schools. Such information includes the school’s methodology behind identification or assistance of students that are at a high risk of being subjected to HIB.
Additionally, the Act requires school staff members to annually establish, implement, document, and assess initiatives utilized to prevent HIB. These initiatives are required to create school-wide conditions designed to prevent and intervene in student HIB. The Act encourages schools to utilize existing evidence-based programs, which can be found on the SAMHSA National Registry of Evidence-based Programs. Schools are encouraged to ensure a means for collecting and examining data on the effectiveness of the initiatives and approaches to be considered in the annual review.
Another suggestion the Act sets forth is “Professional Development and Training” for school members and leaders. The Act breaks down the staff members into categories and sets forth the type of training they should receive. For example, Teachers and Educational Services Professionals are required to receive HIB and suicide prevention training. The Act also mandates that schools implement an annual program in which HIB policy conversations are held with students and provide opportunities for the follow-up and reinforcement of the information and skills discussed to ensure understanding.
A report in the 2011 DuPage County [New Jersey] Anti-Bullying Model Policy and Best Practices indicated that long-term approaches aimed at bullying prevention in schools are more likely to succeed than short-term programs. These long-term programs may include: a school-wide initiative centered on awareness, student and staff member training, assessment and monitoring of bullying; a classroom component focusing on reinforcement of school-wide rules and building emotional and social skills and empathy; and an intervention component for student targets or offenders of bullying.
The New Jersey Act suggests that a positive, culturally conscious and supportive school climate has the potential to significantly enhance academic success and reduce student bullying. An important concept of a positive school climate is a feeling of safety. Additionally, schools are encouraged to focus on relationship building among students and faculty. The Act recommends that districts encourage implementation of strategies that support individual differences, which include race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or a mental, physical or sensory disability, or for any other distinguishing characteristic among all student relationships. Some examples include, but are not limited to: instituting a Gay-Straight Alliance in the school; training the staff to be supportive of differences among students; or celebrating cultural events of students from diverse backgrounds.