N.J. Pushes for Controversial Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights

New Jersey lawmakers are moving to pass an anti-bullying legislation to address teen suicides amid concerns that the bill is exclusive and may punish teachers who express religious beliefs.

Nearly two months after a string of youth suicides led to a national outcry, the New Jersey legislature is close to passing an amendment that will create an Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights. Provisions that expand the definition of bullying to include inflicting emotional harm, add additional criminal charges for bullying, and institute an annual "Week of Respect" will make this law the most comprehensive anti-bully law in the nation.

Bullied students and gay rights advocacy groups praised the bill during Monday's public hearing.

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"We are very grateful for the harmony that exists in Trenton to help our kids," Steven Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, said in rally on the state Assembly steps.

Greg Quinlan of family advocacy group New Jersey Family Policy Council praised the effort, proclaiming, "We need to put a culture of dignity and respect in schools."

But he lamented that the bill has some holes that may limit its effectiveness. Quinlan, a director of government affairs for NJFPC's legislative arm, Family First, said the bill is "segregated" to prevent and treat bullying of particular groups.

The bill enumerates classifications such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, and a mental, physical or sensory handicap as characteristics that generally cause bullying, harassment and/ or intimidation.

Quinlan pointed out, "Obesity is not on the list. Ex-gays like myself are not on the list."

He stressed that "bullying is bullying" and all forms of bullying should be recognized in the bill language.

Staff of the bill sponsors pointed out that the detailed list of bullied characteristics is simply stated as examples. The bill also carries catch all language which includes "any other distinguishing characteristics."

Nevertheless, Quinlan is worried that the bill will censure teachers and students from exercising their first amendment rights to express their beliefs for fear that it may lead to disciplinary action. He noted that a teacher who might say, "There is no gay gene," may be written up as a expressing a bullying comment. Also, expressions of faith may be construed as excluding or berating other faiths.

Quinlan has drafted his own model of anti-bully legislation, which eliminates any list and defers to catch all statement of bullied characteristics. He also said his model is simplified and avoids over burdening the state school system with additional costs.

The current state Senate anti-bullying bill will toughen state law enacted in 2002. The bill carries provisions that mandate teachers, administrators and school staff to receive bullying training in addition to the suicide training already mandated.

Administrators will be required to collect data of the number of bullying incidents and actions taken to resolve these incidents. The data will be reported each quarter and calculated to give each school a bully grade. Administrators will also be required to appoint anti-bully specialists. Districts will be required to establish anti-bullying programs.

Some of the suggestions may be too costly, Quinlan noted. State law stipulates that bills must be accompanied with a budget in order to be approved by state assembly. The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights bill is to be reviewed by the state Senate's budget committee as soon as tomorrow.

According to statistics quoted in the bill, more than a third of all U.S. students were bullied in 2009. Of those students, half reported that bullying was a weekly or daily problem.

As such, the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights bill has garnered bi-partisan support within the New Jersey legislature. Of the state bodies, 28 members of the Senate and 46 members of the assembly have signed on to co-sponsor the bill. Their support will be more than enough to pass the bill.

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