Is NJ moving backward in its effort to fight bullying?
🏫 Schools say they are seeing more instances of bullying
🏫 Advocates want more support in schools
🏫 Cyberbullying is even tougher for schools to address
Since September 2021, when students returned to in-person learning following a COVID hiatus, the principal at Matawan Regional High School has noticed a dramatic rise in bullying incidents.
Aaron Eyler has seen more acts of physical aggression among students, and more instances of cyberbullying, which he says is the most difficult form of bullying to tackle.
"What we are experiencing is similar to what we're seeing throughout the rest of society: difficulty interacting with others, less resilience, fewer tools to cope, and elevated levels of aggression," Eyler said.
Eyler made his comments on Friday before the New Jersey Legislature's Joint Committee on the Public Schools, which held a hearing over Zoom to discuss the issue of bullying.
Students who were already struggling socially pre-pandemic had their struggles amplified by the COVID-induced break from in-person learning, Eyler said. Developmental milestones were not reached, social skills were not developed, and schools must now work hard to address the issue.
"However, limited staff overall, and mental health staff in particular, makes this a truly herculean task," Eyler said.
More support needed in schools
Lawmakers heard from parents, school leaders, and advocates during the two-hour session, many of whom called for greater investment in school staff to address the mental health needs of students.
"Everyone needs to feel safe and supported in their school environment every day. We need more resources for that," said Jessica Smedley, a member of the executive board for the New Jersey School Counselor Association.
Smedley also serves as director of counseling for Hillsborough Township Public Schools. One of the district's counselors, she said, hasn't gone a week this academic year without conducting interviews on an alleged HIB (harassment, intimidation and bullying) incident.
"I don't know if you can ever legislate a teenager's behavior ... but do we provide the right culture? Do we provide the right supports?" said Sen. Joseph Cryan, D-Union, co-chair of the joint committee.
New Jersey is said to have among the toughest anti-bullying laws in the nation, but advocates insist that efforts should not only be reactionary.
"I think our goal should be focused on reducing or eliminating bullying behavior altogether, before the harm," said Jane Clementi, co-founder of the Tyler Clementi Foundation. "We need to give educators the freedom to call out aggressive behavior, so that they can start the process of behavior modification.
Clementi's son Tyler, a Rutgers student, died by suicide in 2010 following a cyberbullying incident that targeted his sexual orientation.
"We need to go further upstream and support our students' social-emotional well-being in addition to their academic growth," she said.