Rutgers' Bullying Prevention Institute Pitches in with New Jersey School Districts

Rutgers' Bullying Prevention Institute Pitches in with New Jersey School Districts

The institute is working with educators as they struggle with the new Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights

"Kids have a right to go to school and feel safe and supported, not intimidated or bullied," says Lori Guerriero, program director of the Bullying Prevention Institute at Rutgers.
 
Lori Guerriero will never forget the middle school classmate who made her life miserable every day for an entire year. “I have trouble remembering the names and faces of most of the people I was with in seventh grade,” said Guerriero, an organizational psychologist with Rutgers’ Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology. “But I remember her – her name, her face, everything about her.”

Guerriero is the program manager of the university’s new Bullying Prevention Institute, part of GSAPP’s Center for Applied Psychology.The institute is funded by a private foundation and began its work in the summer of 2011, before the law took effect.Its mission is to help New Jersey School districts develop effective and comprehensive plans for preventing, detecting, and intervening in incidents of harassment, intimidation, and bullying.

The future of the anti-bullying law is in question since the Council on Local Mandates found the state didn’t provide funding to carry out the requirements. Lawmakers have until the spring to address the problem.

The institute is working with districts as they struggle with the new Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, which sets rules for dealing with incidents of bullying. The future of the law is in question since the Council on Local Mandates found the state didn’t provide funding to carry out the requirements. Lawmakers have until the spring to address the problem. In the meantime, the institute continues to focus on the practice of bullying prevention.

For the educators participating in the institute, the status of the law is secondary: They are focused on the prevention of bullying in their schools. 

“This is a yearlong process, the result of which will be a plan for each district, a plan each district can implement to combat bullying,” said Brad Lerman, director of the institute who has also worked on safe and drug-free school programs.

Twelve school districts across New Jersey are participating, meeting with Rutgers staff and attending a series of workshops at the university. At those workshops, educators from different districts trade ideas about preventing bullying, and responding to it when it happens. Lerman, Guerriero, and GSAPP graduate students April Kabay and Christopher Belderman help them distill what they learn into plans fitting the needs of each district, and then follow up with them at their schools. 

The comprehensive plans the institute helps the districts build may focus their anti-bullying efforts, but the efforts themselves are not new. Character education, and the goal of making their schools civil and safe, is a constant concern. “We teach our children, if they bump into somebody, so say, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, are you all right?’” said Fidelia Sturdivant, principal of the Wahlstrom Academy in East Orange.

Administrators and teachers faced some challenges when the new law took effect in September. At a recent workshop, one administrator, who asked that neither she nor her school be identified, told this story: A kindergarten girl went to the bathroom, and when she tried to leave, was confronted by a boy from her class who said, “I’m a toll-taker; you have to pay me a toll.” The little girl socked him. 

“Our Anti-Bullying Specialist didn’t call me, which is our protocol,” the administrator remembered. “Instead, she directed the teacher to write the incident up and that started the machinery going. We have a zero-tolerance policy in our school about violence, which meant the parents were called in, and a letter went in the girl’s file. Her mother said the girl had been intimidated, and that she had taught the girl to respond that way if she felt intimidated. So a letter went in the boy’s file, too.”

One educator from a suburban district said students whose parents received formal notice that their children had harassed, intimidated, or bullied someone (such notice was required by the law) sometimes showed up at school with their children and their lawyers. Another said teachers in her district, trying hard to do the right thing, “kept sending me notification about first-graders fighting over crayons.”

Marge Krah, a character educator in the Cape May County Special Services District, says the focus of her work is not on laws or regulations, but on the adults her students will become. “We’re in the business of producing decent human beings, and that’s nurtured in an atmosphere of safety and mutual respect,” she said. “I don’t want to be the anti-bullying coordinator; I’d rather be called the respect coordinator and take it from there.”

“Bullying is not a rite of passage,” Guerriero said with some heat, remembering her tormentor of 20 years ago. “Kids have a right to go to school and feel safe and supported, not intimidated or bullied. They shouldn’t have to worry about that.”