Despite a lack of adequate funding, North Bergen and Guttenberg school districts have attempted to comply with state mandates regarding the issues of harassment, intimidation and bullying in their schools. Policies have been initiated or updated, specialists are in place to handle complaints, and specific projects have been launched to educate students and help create safe learning environments.
After the New Jersey legislature passed the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act in Nov. 2010, Gov. Christopher Christie signed a law in Jan. 2011 amending various parts of the law pertaining to harassment, intimidation and bullying (HIB), adding requirements for prevention and intervention of HIB situations on and off school grounds, at school-sponsored functions, and on school buses.
The law requires each school to have its own anti-bullying specialist and an anti-bullying coordinator to represent the district. The problem is that state funding appropriated on March 26 of this year isn’t considered sufficient by many local administrators.
“We have to educate the students along with their parents.” – John Belluardo
Guttenberg’s harassment policy states that the “standards for students behavior must be set cooperatively through interaction among the students, parents, staff and community members of the school district, producing an atmosphere that encourages students to grow in self-discipline. The development of this atmosphere requires respect for self and others, as well as for district and community property on the part of students, staff and community members.”
School officials coping with the problem
John Belluardo, North Bergen’s anti-bullying coordinator, collaborates with the anti-bullying specialists in each school throughout the district.
“We always had a bullying policy, prior to the legislature,” he said. “Our policy is similar to what is given by the state. According to the legislature, any one incident that affects the child in any way that they cannot function within the school, we have to address.”
Each school has its own anti-bullying specialist. Robert Fulton Elementary School has Colleen Conroy; Horace Mann Elementary School has Catherine Dondero; Franklin Elementary School’s specialist is Konstantina Hernandez. The specialist at McKinley Elementary School is Alex Alvarez; at John F. Kennedy Elementary School, Seham Escheik; at Lincoln Elementary School, Diana Englese; at North Bergen High School, Andrew Becker, and Anna L. Klein’s anti-bullying specialist is Angela Travelli, the guidance counselor.
If an incident arises, the specialist conducts an investigation, formerly a task completed by either the principal or the principal’s designee. The principal, along with the school’s specialist, determines how to respond to an HIB incident.
“All our elementary guidance counselors are the bullying specialists,” said Belluardo. “We felt they would already know the child prior to any incident and they are already in the school. On the high school level, I have myself and Mr. Becker, who is a social worker. He’s the one that does the investigations behind me.”
By law, the specialist has two days to investigate and write a report. From there the specialist begins the investigation of the victim, bullies, and whatever witnesses were present during the incident. In 10 days’ time, it must be determined if any action will be taken.
Belluardo urges students who see or experience anything of concern to come forward, and not be ashamed.
“We look at each individual case and assess it for 10 days and see if it is an accurate bullying issue or not. If not, we try to do as much remedy as we can,” said Belluardo.
Projects for safe environments
The school districts have created specific projects that include the student council. This year the goal was to use posters to remind students to respect their peers. Students are creating posters to draw awareness to this issue in both elementary schools and the high school.
North Bergen’s “ambassador program” began five years ago with seventh and eighth grade students as a way for children to work out problems and issues within the school. Students have a moderator that helps them with their problems. Two other helpful alternatives are conflict resolution and peer group meetings that occur in the high school.
“When we have two kids fighting, we bring in the parents to make them aware of the issue and try to rectify it that way,” said Belluardo. “Instead of just sending a letter, we make it a little more personal. The guidance counselor, which is our specialist, knows the parent already so the parent feels more comfortable talking to the person specifically from that school.”
New age, new problems
Cyber-bullying poses a more elusive danger for students because the interaction is through electronic communication.
“We have the police department and the prosecutor’s office come in and do special programs for cyber-bullying so they are aware of what could be the consequences...what can be the ramifications of doing cyber-bullying.” said Belluardo.
Parents need to be aware of what’s going on with their children, he said, and often parents don’t know their children are more computer savvy than they are. “Communication is the best thing to give to these children and sometimes there are children that don’t want to communicate and that’s the problem we have.”
Support staff such as custodians, maintenance people, cafeteria workers, clerical aides and anyone not in the classroom are also a part of the in-service program against HIB. Their objective is to report what they see rather than pushing it aside. The district has also gone a step further and included crossing guards to fight against bullying since they are “outside the perimeter of the building” as Belluardo stated. School bus drivers are also involved in this collaborative effort.
Bullies are not left to fend for themselves, he said, because the school acknowledges that they are crying out for help. One solution is to put them in leadership roles for motivational purposes.
Struggling with funding
However, funding plays a crucial part in the fight against bullying for students. Schools are left struggling with the money that they are allotted.
“We’re not talking about salary and man hours,” said Belluardo. “I think it’s very important, every district has guidelines and they only have an ‘x’ amount of money for funding. By having funding, at least there’s continuity. At least starting programs so kids can learn about it so when kids grow up, they can handle the issue, especially when they go to the high school level. We have to educate the students along with their parents.”