It used to be that bullying began when students got on the school bus in the morning and ended when they got off the bus at the end of the school day. Today, thanks to the modern conveniences of text messaging and social media, bullies know no off-hours; they have around-the-clock access to their victims.
Yesterday afternoon, state Senate Majority Leader Martin Looney (D-New Haven), state Sen. Joseph Crisco Jr. (D-Woodbridge), along with Superintendent of Amity Schools John Brady, held a press conference to highlight the features of a new state law that went into effect July 1 that clamps down on cyberbullying.
The new law brings two changes to the fight against bullying. In addition to including cyberbullying as an offense, it expands the role and responsibility of the schools.
Before the new law was signed into effect, if the offensive actions didn't happen at school, there was little administrators could do. Now, as long as the bullying actions affect a student at school, administrators are required to step in and investigate.
"Before the days of technology, home was an oasis. Now, children are vulnerable at home," Looney said.
He said bullying can no longer be downplayed as a rite of passage for children and that it's reached new levels - it is now taking children's lives.
Crisco cited the case that brought the issue to the front burner for him. He spoke of Alexa Berman, a 14-year-old from Brookfield, who had been cyber-bullied. Three years ago she hung herself in her bedroom just days before starting high school.
For Brady, the defining moment was the suicide of Tyler Clementi, the teen from Rutgers University who threw himself from the George Washington Bridge last September to escape the bullying he endured after being video-taped and watched during a sexual encounter.
"It's reaching epidemic proportions," Crisco said. "No child should be confronted with this kind of fear."
"The new law provides more flexibility for school officials to investigate reports of bullying," Crisco added. "It expands the requirements among all school employees, not just teachers and administrators, to report bullying incidents they see."
Now, anyone employed by the school, whether faculty, staff or by contract (such as bus drivers) is required to report acts of bullying to administration.
The new law requires that school districts statewide adopt a "safe school climate plan" and appoint school climate specialists at each school before July 2012. The major difference with the new legislation is "prevention and intervention," according to Brady.
"The school needs to be a more tolerant place," he said. "We need to help students become more sensitized to different people."
"When our bullying laws were last amended in 2008, no one could have foreseen the prevalence of Facebook, Twitter and other forms of electronic social media and communication, which can now provide a devastating forum for students to engage in bullying," Looney said, adding that he's pleased that students are starting the school year this month with these added protections.
"The advent of cyberbullying means abusive behavior is no longer confined to school boundaries or school hours," Crisco said. "Victims' lives can be altered literally overnight."
Amity’s Anti-bullying Agenda
Amity Schools have already developed aggressive methods to prevent bullying and had previously put specialists in place with their existing staff. As part of their anti-bullying program they conduct assemblies, show movies, give warnings and establish safe zones to help make students feel secure.
Even summer reading lists encourage books such as the Outsiders, which has a central theme of teen bullying. As a preventative measure, in part to minimize bullying, the high school is installing a video recording system.
But Brady said he knows that all the preventative measures in the world won't deter some students from bullying their fellow schoolmates.
It happens in subtle ways as well as very public ways. For some, he said, the bigger the audience, the bigger the satisfaction that bullying brings. Still, some bullies will hide behind anonymous text messages and social media posts, and the new law is designed to protect those victims.
Brady said that in Amity there are serious repercussions for bullies, including in-school suspension, out-of-school suspension and even expulsion.
What the Changes Mean:
- Expands the types of conduct that constitute school bullying and the situations where it can occur; it identifies as bullying targeting a student based on actual or perceived “differentiating” characteristics, such as race, gender, sexual orientation, or physical appearance and also actions taken through electronic communications or devices that otherwise qualify as bullying and are known collectively as “cyberbullying.”
- The new law expands the role of the school principal, making him or her responsible for investigating or designating someone to investigate and address bullying whether it occurs in or out of school, whether it affects the school or students in the school or school district.
- The act expands reporting requirements, requiring all school employees, not just teachers and administrators, to report bullying incidents they see or that are reported to them to the principal or his or her designee.
- Schools and school districts now required to adopt safe school climate plans to address bullying including clear deadlines for reporting, investigating, and notifying parents and guardians about bullying incidents, prohibiting retaliation against those who report bullying, and requiring police notification when school officials believe bullying behavior rises to the level of crime.
- All employees as well as certain contractors working in public schools now required to receive annual training in how to identify, intervene, and prevent bullying and suicide among students. Beginning teachers and teacher candidates are now required to complete training on these topics as well.
- Training about how to prevent, recognize, and combat bullying is to be built into existing, mandatory training for new faculty and staff to eliminate any additional cost to local districts for the new training requirements.
- Supported by the state Department of Education, the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities, Attorney General George Jepsen, the Connecticut Commission on Children, and approved unanimously in each legislative chamber.