Bullying in Brick Township schools has been halved from three years ago and has largely plateaued, though more incidents are occurring online – all while school officials are wrestling with how to best delineate between a case of bullying in the legal sense and a simple conflict between students.
“In every case, we have to look at it to see if it’s a conflict situation or a bullying situation,” said Earl Mosely, the Brick school district’s anti-bullying coordinator.
In the years since the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act was passed by the New Jersey legislature in 2010, the very definition of bullying has sometimes been difficult to identify, and the factors which contribute to a true case of harassment, intimidation or bullying – a HIB violation, in public school parlance – have evolved.
During the 2014-15 school year, the Brick district reported 23 HIB violations to the state Department of Education. That’s down from 26 cases during the 2013-14 school year, and cut by more than half from the 62 violations reported during the 2012-13 school year. School officials point to an intense focus on “character education” over the past several years, and better training for both students and teachers in anti-bullying policies as the reason for the drop.
While the state’s anti-bullying law came into effect with a spotlight on avoiding harassment, intimidation and bullying as it related to a student’s race, ethnicity or sexual orientation, in many cases Brick officials have seen a much more diverse set of factors that caused conflicts and bullying incidents.
Out of Brick’s 23 incidents during the 2014-15 school year, racial and skin color tension contributed to four incidents. Gender contributed to three incidents. The remainder of the incidents fell into a catch-all category the state defines as “other distinguishing characteristics,”
Mosely said school officials have been trained to identify many of these characteristics, including academic ability, hair style, overweight or obese physical shape, small stature or physical weakness and a lack of athletic ability. Other causes include bullying stemming from children living in non-traditional families, academic stereotypes and a student’s socioeconomic status. Children who wore glasses were bullied in some circumstances.
School officials look at a potential “power imbalance between two people involved” when determining whether a HIB violation has occurred, Mosely said.
Last school year, 21 of the 23 incidents were verbal in nature, while five also fell into the category of being delivered through electronic communication. None of the incidents involved physical conflict.
“Parents, you need to be aware of what’s going on on the internet,” Mosely warned, saying that incidents often originate online and make their way into the school environment. Facebook is not the social network of choice, in most cases. Mosely said students are mainly using Instagram, Snapchat and Kik Messenger.
As in the past, middle school students are most at risk of being bullied or bullying others, but school staff members are finding more girls are beginning to participate in bullying, an area which traditionally – and perhaps stereotypically – primarily involved boys in decades past.
According to the state statistics, harassment, intimidation or bullying interfered with a child’s education 13 times. In 18 of the incidents, the offender “knew action would physically or emotionally cause harm to the victim or damage to the victim’s property,” data showed. In 22 of the cases, the HIB incident affected a group of students.
The state data also shows how the Brick district handled bullying cases.
In 12 cases, students were referred to individual counseling, while two cases involved students being more formally referred to therapy or treatment. Nineteen of the cases resulted in a student conference, while 10 resulted in a parent conference. Five were resolved through “other measures,” according to the state report.
Brick’s numbers were in line with other districts of its size. Jackson, the closest Ocean County district in size to Brick, reported 29 HIB incidents. Central Regional and Southern Regional both reported 21 incidents, while Lacey Township reported 20. Toms River, the county’s largest district and the only district with three high schools, reported 83 incidents.