Steven Goldstein, Chairman, Founder and CEO of Garden State Equality, addressed an Anti-Bullying forum at Montclair State University on Monday evening by asking the crowd, “How many of you have ever been bullied?”
When the majority of people in the room raised their hands, he responded, “When I was a child, I was beaten to a pulp. Kicked. Spit on. Kids threatened to kill me because I was gay, short, different.”
Goldstein went on, “The best revenge is not using your hands, but changing society so future generations don’t have to suffer what you suffered.”
In response to recent tragedies involving cyber-bullying, and as part of a national effort to eradicate bullying of all kinds, U.S. Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ) has re-introduced the Tyler Clemente Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act, which prohibits Internet harassment on college campuses. The law was named after Tyler Clemente, a Rutgers University student from Ridgewood, N.J. who took his own life last September after other students used the Internet to torment him and invade his privacy.
Monday’s standing-room only crowd of about 400 educators, legislators, parents and students gathered at MSU’s University Hall for the forum, hosted by Lautenberg (who was not in attendance.) First, there was a brief videotaped speech by the senator, who called for support of a new law to prevent bullying “under any conditions.” Then, moderator J. Frank Vespa-Papaleo, adjunct professor at Montclair State University’s Center for Child Advocacy and former executive director of the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights, introduced the evening's panelists.
One of the most moving speakers was President Obama’s appointee at the U.S. Department of Education, Kevin Jennings, assistant deputy secretary for Safe and Drug-Free Schools.
“I truly believe that because of past tragedies, including the Clemente case, this Administration is committed to making changes,” said Jennings emphatically.
“But we can pass all the laws we want — if the school districts don’t take action, the laws aren’t worth the paper they’re written on," he said.
Jennings shared his own experiences as a child who was the victim of school bullies. “Believe (your children) if they tell you they’re being bullied,” he advised. “Don’t minimize it. They’re overcoming a big stigma to tell you. When I told my mother, she took me out of that school. It may have saved my life. It certainly saved my education.” Jennings went on to graduate magna cum laude from Harvard University.
“Also, don’t think the child who’s getting bullied is the only one who’s being hurt," he said. "It’s the child who’s watching who also can’t concentrate in school.”
Jennings provided some sobering statistics: 72.4% of students are bullied at one time or another and 75% of school shootings in the past decade were (perpetrated by) students who were bullied. He then went on to display eight photos of children who were recent casualties of bullying: Clemente, Hope Whitsell, Phoebe Prince, Seth Walsh, Asher Brown, Christian Taylor, Justin Aaberg and Carl Joseph Walker Hoover.
“Carl was a child who decided he would rather die than go back to school,” said Jennings, as the audience stared at the screen displaying a handsome young football player. “Carl is the reason I took this job. I went to Washington DC to fight for kids like him. I have a button for every kid who died. I wear one every day to remind myself why we’re doing this work.”
On Jenning’s lapel, the button featured a photo of a child that read, “Lawrence King, 1993-2008.”
“Silence helps the tormentor,” Jennings concluded, “never the tormented. When we’re silent, it’s going to continue.” He implored people to contact him with concerns about bullying and cyber-bullying. “I want to hear from you. I assure you I have no one else reading my emails. I can’t (stop the problem) alone but I believe that, as a country, we can do it.”
After Jenning’s presentation, many in the audience rose to their feet to applaud.
Other speakers at the forum were compelling and informative as well, including Parry Aftab, Founder and Executive Director of WiredSafety.
“I run Stopcyberbullying.org,” said Aftab, who travels to schools to do anti-cyberbullying presentations. “I’m going to donate five full-day speaking engagements to whoever asks me first. I will also oversee ten students at Montclair State University if they want to do an internship with me. I want to do what New Jersey does best: help each other for free.”
Aftan had scarcely finished speaking when a flood of audience members crowded around the speakers’ table, clamoring for one of the five speaking engagement spots.
“Well, this is a lot more than five,” she laughed, “but we’ll see how we can help you out.”
Vespa-Papaleo also impressed the audience with his dedication to the cause. “There are times in history when people must stand up and say ‘Enough’,” he stated. “Parents call my office because they don’t know where to turn. Their children are afraid to go to school because of chronic bullying. And, because of Facebook and Twitter, it doesn’t stop when they get home . . . it’s become quite clear that New Jersey has to update its laws.”
Stating he worked with the state legislature to create “bi-partisan, comprehensive and practical legislation,” he noted that his aim is to make schools accountable for acts of cyber bullying. The legislation, he said, would require schools to implement age-appropriate activities and a mandatory “Week of Respect” each October. A “Safety Team” would also meet twice a year to work on awareness and prevention issues.
State Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (District 37) stated, “I look forward to the next school year, when this law takes effect . . . If we can start to work on the issue at the Pre-K-Kindergarten level, it will be second nature by the time our children are in college.”
Goldstein noted, “Some say it’s not the responsibility of schools, it’s the responsibility of parents. Bunk. It’s the responsibility of society. Who cares if a kid gets 2400 on the SAT if that kid is demolishing some other kid’s self-esteem? Society has to set standards (of civility). A law can send a message that you can legislate behavior.”
Derek Rill, Congressional Specialist from the Federal Trade Commission, discussed the materials designed by the FTC to educate kids and schools about cyber bullying and the hidden dangers of the Internet. The “outreach toolkit" was complimentary to each member of the audience.
“Pass it on to teachers. Ask them to start a discussion with their students,” suggested Rill. “Ask the kids, ‘If you’re on Facebook, should you “friend” your parent?’ Ask them, ‘Do you think people look at the privacy settings on Facebook?’ ”
Sergeant Gregory Williams of the NJ State Police also made a short presentation on the importance of vigilance in cases of bullying. “We provide training and education for law enforcement throughout the state,” he said. “It’s more important to provide training for prevention; we don’t want to have to respond to assaults and suicide.”
Jennifer Keyes-Maloney, the Assistant Director of Government Relations of the NJ Principals and Supervisors Association, gave a Powerpoint presentation of the new law’s ramifications.
“A ‘hostile environment’ that is created either on or off school grounds can cause physical or emotional harm to the student and prohibit that child from learning,” she maintained. “The new law emphatically makes it clear to schools that they have a duty here.”
Keyes-Maloney outlined in detail the specific actions required by schools districts to comply with the new law, including key measures like appointing an Anti-Bullying Specialist who will respond quickly to incidents of bullying.
“A written report has to happen within two days, and an investigation must be completed within 10 days,” she said, noting that the Superintendent also has two days to respond. In the past, families complained about schools’ lengthy response times to bullying incidents.
“The NJ Department of Education will grade school districts in their efforts to implement policies,” she said, “and there is liability for school administrators who neglect to act.”
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