In Section I, this article will examine the prevalence of harassment, intimidation, discrimination and bullying in today’s school systems, and will analyze the impact of bullying on a youth’s emotional health and well-being. This section will clearly emphasize the need to draw attention to this issue by showcasing the severity of damage to our youth in the learning environment.
Section II of this article will discuss the current education law in New York and New Jersey designed to combat bullying. The first part of Section II is more informative than it is persuasive, and it will lay the foundation for the article’s analysis of the current laws. Later in Section II, the article will highlight the problem areas of the education laws adopted by New York and New Jersey. It will closely examine the specific content of the laws that are weak, and will identify which provisions of the law should be either amended or removed from their respective policies.
Section III of this article will present improvements to these laws in an effort to better protect the emotional health and well-being of our youth, and will provide solutions to the criticisms of the laws that are exposed in Section II. The proposals for change provided in Section III include: changes to the bullying investigative process, requiring appropriate licenses for bullying staff, a solution to accommodating youth victims of bullying not during school hours or on school grounds, and the need to create a culture change initiative in schools that more effectively promotes safety and acceptance for all students.
I. Emotional Impact of Harassment, Intimidation, Discrimination and Bullying on Today’s Youth
Studies show that any given person’s brain is not fully developed until the age of twenty-five. This also means that any given person’s cognitive functioning is not fully developed until the age of twenty-five. That distinction is important to remember when assessing the impact of bullying on a youth who is under that age. A youth’s processing of trauma is completely different than a fully-grown adult. The ability to rationalize, the ability to communicate, and the capacity to reason is more difficult for a youth than a fully developed adult. In order to examine the impact of bullying on today’s youth, it is important to evaluate on the basis of understanding that the brain development for youth is significantly more limited than the average adult.
a. Statistical Correlation between Bullying Victimization and Mental Health Issues
In 2011, a National Youth Risk Behavior survey showed that twenty percent of all youth in the American school system have experienced bullying. Twenty-three percent of public schools reported that bullying occurred among students on a daily or weekly basis. The United States National Institute of Child Health and Human Development found that self-reported bullies suffered from more overt problem behaviors, such as alcohol abuse, smoking, and poor academic performance. Bullying victims were twice as likely to develop depressed mood. Similarly, victims were more likely to develop negative self-perceptions over time than youth that did not experienced bullying.
When a young person develops negative self-perceptions, this can lead to lack of confidence, self-esteem, and the ability to concentrate in the learning environment. Consequently, a victim of bullying can suffer from decreased academic performance. Decreased academic performance could lead to a number of mental health issues for the youth, and could cause additional strain on the victim’s family. When a parent or guardian recognizes these signs, they are more likely to seek mental health treatment for the youth, which in turn means more time devoted to improving the emotional health of the youth, which is both financially and emotionally costly, instead of ensuring the academic performance of the youth and his or her success with learning. Too often, the victim of bullying is left with more consequences that the perpetrator of the bullying.
b. How Bullying Impacts a Youth’s Emotional Health and Well-Being
Mental health issues and bullying are nearly one and the same for the victims and perpetrators of bullying. The act of bullying is a mental health vulnerability factor for symptoms related to depression, anxiety, and anti-social behaviors. We know that bullying is damaging, but many people do not understand the magnitude of how troublesome bullying can be for a youth in their childhood and into their adulthood. When a youth is brought up in an environment that is not safe and accepting, not only does that environment impact the youth in the present-day, but it can cause long-term damage to a youth’s understanding of a healthy emotional and physical well-being. It is an added vulnerability factor for symptoms related to depression and anxiety well into that youth’s adulthood.
For the victim of bullying, he or she is more likely to experience symptoms of depression. Depression takes shape in the form of isolating in social settings, crying spells, loss of appetite, self-harm behaviors, decreased ability to sleep, fatigue and lack of energy, and the inability to concentrate and focus on academics. The victim may also experience symptoms related to anxiety. The victim may experience panic attacks, become introverted in social settings, may have decreased ability to sleep, and may even experience physiological symptoms related to the anxiety such as nausea, lightheadedness, and shortness of breath. For both the victim and the bully, these symptoms are likely to continue into adulthood.
For the perpetrators of bullying, they are more likely to engage in anti-social behaviors through childhood and into adulthood. Studies have shown that those who bully in their childhood are more likely to commit serious crime offenses in their youth and into adulthood. Likewise, perpetrators of bullying are more likely to display anti-social and oppositional behaviors. Anti-social and oppositional behaviors can take shape in the form of showing an inability to follow directions, dismissing authoritative figures and community rules and regulations, or showing little or no remorse for causing harm or initiating or participating in an unsafe situation. These issues may not seem so problematic when a youth is developing in their childhood; however, as they age, the extent of these problematic behaviors only worsen over time.
Many acts of bullying are criminalized by apprehensive communities as an extreme method to eradicate and prevent bullying from occurring or recurring. As schools and larger communities are ill-equipped to properly address and implement consequences, it is easier, and in a way, feels more logical, to swiftly answer with a call on law enforcement, setting court hearings, and criminalizing the youth who are found as perpetrators of bullying. We fail as a community, however, to account for the damaging effect on a young person who is accused of bullying another when the act of bullying becomes a criminal one.
In California, for example, several students and parents were formally charged with committing a hate crime, making defamatory statements, and causing the intentional infliction of emotional distress on a fifteen-year-old student who created a public site to advance his career interests. This young person was humiliated by egregious comments posted on his site. While the statements made on the student’s website were indeed heinous, threatening and morally reprehensible, criminalizing the behavior leaves little room for rehabilitation and appropriate treatment for the perpetrator of bullying. Instead of treating the perpetrator in an effort for growth and creating an experience from which to learn from, the bully is left with a rap sheet and is hardened by the unattainable idea of what it means to be a productive person in the community.
c. Impact of the Internet and Social Media on Bullying Prevalence
The internet and the instant access to social media has redefined bullying prevalence both at school and when school is not in session. American educational culture and experience have been transformed by the accessibility to technology and social connections through the internet. With the emergence of cell phones and America’s culturally normative nudge to parents to equip their child with one, the access to the internet and social media also became available instantly and constantly.
Facebook, Snapchat, Tumblr and Instagram are the most utilized outlets for youth and self-expression. Snapchat is often viewed as the most problematic of the four: when an individual posts a comment or photo or video, it disappears within seconds of showing on the receiver’s phone screen. This makes it more difficult for school administrators and parents to hold a youth accountable for making a harassing or detrimental statement towards or about another individual when it is no longer accessible. Snapchat’s ability for a user to make statements and images and videos to appear and then disappear is dangerous because there is a feeling of invincibility that exists with a youth knowing that he or she is less likely to get caught for something malicious and mean towards another youth.
Perhaps the most dangerous social media outlet that has caused a damaging impact to youth since its origin is ASKfm—a social application designed for people to ask questions anonymously to a person’s public profile. A young person is able to secretly ask harassing and intimidating questions to another student. That youth may even defy the purpose of the social media application by posting a comment outright without asking a question that is intended to be bullying and malicious.
The problem is two-fold. The first issue is that youth now have more frequent access to social media in order to connect with other people and students at their schools. This extends the school day in a limitless manner. The interactions and socializing that once took place in face-to-face interactions at school the socialization among peers, now takes place beyond the school borders and last class bell into the afternoon and evening on a daily basis. This is troublesome for the issue of bullying. If a youth is being bullied throughout the school day, that particular youth has no respite from the torment. It simply continues into the afternoon and evening via the internet. Without respite, the intensity of bullying shifts from being contained to school hours, to twenty-four-hour incessant and relentless distress. When the level of distress becomes unmanageable, a youth’s mental health symptoms exceed the threshold for what they can possibly endure. We see this through the increase in reports of youth that suffer from suicidal or homicidal ideation, attempts and completions.
The second problem is less obvious. As youth are not fully developed cognitively or otherwise, there is a stronger prevalence of bullying that occurs on the internet and on social media apps simply because these apps are non-confrontational outlets with seemingly less policing conducted by adults. Even though not all applications are confidential, there is an element of anonymity achieved through hiding behind a computer and bullying rather than bullying a youth in a face-to-face interaction. Youth are more likely to bully behind a computer than in front of another youth because the perpetrator assumes there would be less consequences for engaging in the behavior as it did not occur on school grounds. The perpetrator may also feel more empowered to express their thoughts and feelings online rather than in person because there is less accountability for self-expression that is harmful or hurtful to another person.
d. How Bullying is More Prevalent Than Ever Before
The mass shooting at Columbine High School nearly twenty years ago cast light upon a problem in the shadows of school hallways, and it has only worsened in today’s America. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were reportedly subject to relentless bullying throughout their childhood and into high school when they murdered twelve students, one teacher, injured twenty-one additional people, before committing suicide. Since this horrific time, the bullying problem seems to have worsened even with local government and school administration efforts to combat the prevalence of bullying in their schools. With the development of technology and change in culture to be more accepting of bullying as a cultural norm in our schools, it is no wonder that bullying is more present now than ever before. In order to assess where policies need to be more protective and effective with ensuring the safety of our youth, we must first examine current rules and regulations in the local areas that exist to remedy this problem. We must then be critical, and view these rules and regulations with the strongest magnifying lens, and offer solutions to improve and build upon what we already have in place.
II. Case Studies on Current Solutions to Bullying
This section of the article serves to examine the regulations that address bullying in the school system on a local level. For that reason, we will be examining the strengths and analyzing the deficits of the state education regulations in New Jersey and New York states.
a. New Jersey: State Education Regulations
New Jersey has notably the strictest regulations on combating bullying in the state’s school systems. According to New Jersey Administrative Code 6A:16—7.7 on Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying, the state government gives each school district the authority to decide the content of the bullying policy in their schools. It does, however, require each district to incorporate these elements in their respective policies:
i. A statement prohibiting harassment, intimidation or bullying of a student;
ii. A definition of harassment, intimidation or bullying no less inclusive than that set forth in the definition at N.J.S.A. 18A:37—14 and N.J.A.C. 6A:16—1.3;
iii. A description of the type of behavior expected from each student;
iv. Appropriate remedial action for a student who commits an act of HIB
The regulation further elaborates that the appropriate remedial action for a student who commits an act of bullying should be determined by a behavioral assessment or evaluation, including but not limited to a child study team evaluation, and supportive interventions and referral services. The regulation also addresses the consequences that should be implemented for a youth who commits an act of bullying, and it is determined by being “varied and graded according to the nature of the behavior, the developmental age of the student and the student’s history of problem behaviors and performance.”
The New Jersey anti-bullying regulation also addresses and requires each school district to implement their own district procedure for combating bullying that does not occur on school grounds or during school hours. This separates New Jersey anti-bullying laws from other state governments. Many state governments do not proceed beyond requiring vague directives for combating bullying that happens at and during school; they fall short of addressing the need to combat bullying during after-school hours, on weekends, and when school is not in session.
Regulation 6A:16—7.7 also serves to remedy acts of bullying that are committed by staff members such as teachers and administrators. This distinguishes New Jersey law from other states because it recognizes that students are not the only perpetrators of bullying in any given school district.
The anti-bullying regulation also requires that action is taken to investigate instances of bullying promptly and efficiently, and requires that appropriate action is taken against a student who falsely reports bullying as a means of retaliating against another student. While New Jersey requires the district to determine appropriate action for a student who seeks to retaliate against another student for starting the bullying process, it does not determine the specific actions that the district should take in order to ensure that students are not retaliating against one another.
More importantly, the regulation calls for the hiring of a Bullying Coordinator and Bullying Specialist in each of the schools within the district to ensure that the regulation is being adhered to. These employees may be newly hired for the position, or they may be seasoned employees who are given anti-bullying responsibilities in addition to their current responsibilities.
b. New Jersey Analysis
Prior to the enactment of the Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying Law in New Jersey, the Superior Court of New Jersey determined in L.W. ex rel. L.G. v. Toms River Regional Schools Board of Education that the school district was not liable to bullying experienced by the plaintiff. Historically in the New Jersey legal system, when a victim of bullying brings forth a claim against the district, and holds the district accountable for bullying at their school, the victims who bring suit are generally denied, as the court often, if not always, rules in favor of the district.
New Jersey—home of the strictest regulation enactment on harassment, intimidation and bullying —still stumbles in an attempt to ensure the well-being and safety of our youth today. One of the instances in which the legislation falters in many ways is by the failure to require the Bullying Specialist or Bullying Coordinator to possess the appropriate license to do their jobs effectively. The law remains silent beyond the scope of requiring a designated person in every school to manage reports and incidents of bullying. Further, the regulation only requires the district to post the contact information of the Bullying Specialist and Bullying Coordinator on the school’s website, where it is visible and easily accessible to parents and students. This Bullying Specialist or Bullying Coordinator can be any current employee of the school: a gym teacher, a math teacher, a support staff person. This presents as a terrifying issue for the victim, the perpetrator, and the educational community.
When assessing the nature of a bullying report filed with any given New Jersey school, the Bullying Specialist and Bullying Coordinator must determine the appropriate remedial action for a student who commits an act of bullying. This is determined by a behavioral assessment or evaluation, including but not limited to a child study team evaluation, and supportive interventions and referral services. The policy also addresses the consequences that should be implemented for a youth who commits an act of bullying, and it is determined by being “varied and graded according to the nature of the behavior, the developmental age of the student and the student’s history of problem behaviors and performance.”
While teachers and support staff may be equipped to do their respective jobs effectively and efficiently, it is not within the scope or realm of their expertise to assess whether or not a child should be evaluated by the Child Study Team. These employees are also not equipped to conduct a behavioral assessment or any other evaluation that determines the needs for that child.
Let’s assume that every district understands this problem. Let’s assume that every district remedies this issue by requiring the roles of the Bullying Coordinator and Specialist to serve as nothing more than “point persons,” who receive the bullying report and outsource the responsibility for managing the report to a licensed professional in the school to conduct such behavioral assessments, referrals, and coordinating with the child study team. The regulation and consequently the district still fail to take into account the roles of these licensed professionals and their current duties in the school system. Social workers, licensed professional counselors and school psychologists are overworked and underrepresented as it is. To ultimately hold these professionals accountable for the heavy duties and responsibilities of addressing bullying only contributes to a higher peak of responsibilities that are simply impossible to complete in an effective, timely, and qualified manner.
The New Jersey law falters when it does not specify that the Bullying Specialist and Bullying Coordinator must have licensing credentials that determine that individual is a qualified person for the responsibility. The New Jersey law should specify that when each district appoints a bullying specialist and coordinator to their schools, they must be qualified based on work experience and appropriate licensing requirements, and they must be additional to the current staff of the school.
New Jersey schools are also given too much free reign to determine the appropriateness of their district’s bullying policy. For example, while the district is required to implement a school practice to address harassment, intimidation and bullying that occurs off school grounds, the law stops there, and permits the district to determine how to respond to these bullying reports. The vagueness of this provision in the anti-bullying regulation opens the door to many districts having a lack of accountability and responsibility for incidents which occur outside of school. Many school districts have not adopted a policy on addressing bullying outside of school, or simply do not adhere to it. Considering the nature of cyberbullying and its prevalence, this is incredibly dangerous to our youth. Long gone are the days that bullying occurred only at recess; it occurs at all times, regardless of whether or not school is in session.
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