KIYC: School assault in Allentown reveals ongoing issues with NJ’s bullying laws
A violent attack on an Allentown High School student in a school bathroom might appear, at first glance, to be an obvious act of bullying. But it is not under New Jersey law. The incident illustrates how little things have changed since a 2019 Kane In Your Corner investigation found school bullying in New Jersey was being systemically underreported.
The video is graphic and disturbing to watch. A 14-year-old girl knocks another to the ground and pummels her repeatedly until a school staff member pulls her off. Other students stand by, watching and recording the incident on their phones.
But when the victim’s mother filed a bullying complaint, the school district quickly declared it unfounded.
“According to state law, for an incident to be considered (bullying), it needs to have certain elements,” Allentown High School Vice Principal Brandon Crosby explained to the victim’s parents in an email, adding: “The element that is missing in this case is that there is not a ‘distinguishable characteristic’ that caused the incident.”
In other words, because the victim was not targeted and beaten specifically because of a characteristic such as their race, religion or gender identity, the district did not classify the incident as an act of Harassment, Intimidation or Bullying (HIB). Instead, it will be recorded in statewide statistics as an act of violence, no different than if the two girls had agreed to fight one another.
Stuart Green, a member of New Jersey’s Anti-Bullying Task Force, says he believes a distinguishing characteristic should not be required but says under the current system, “If we look at as video and it just shows one girl being attacked by another girl, and we don’t have more context or history, we can’t really say it’s bullying.”
Kane In your Corner first investigated school bullying in New Jersey in 2019. The investigation found cases of bullying were being underreported, in part because the definition was so restrictive. Glenn Huber, a former school board member, put it bluntly. “They call it an anti-bullying law and it’s a misnomer. It’s an anti-discrimination law in bullying,” Huber says.
After the first part of the 2019 Kane In Your Corner investigation aired, the Murphy administration released a statement, saying the governor was re-forming the then-dormant Anti-Bullying Task Force and charging them with coming up with more effective school bullying laws. But the task force has yet to hold its first meeting after more than three years.
“I didn’t like that it took this long,” Green says. ”On the other hand, let’s remember that in the last two years, we’ve been in a pandemic.”
Kane In Your Corner asked the Murphy administration why the anti-bullying task force had not met after more than three years but got no response. However, Green says the administration told him Wednesday afternoon that the task force would finally have its long-awaited first meeting this spring.
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