Gay Rights Group and Anti-Bullying Activists Find Common Ground

Anti-Bullying bill of rights speeds through Statehouse virtually unopposed

The two movements were almost on parallel paths, until timing and tragedy brought them together.

For much of the past decade, those pressing for strong anti-bullying legislation in New Jersey had a formidable track record, first enacting one of the nation’s earliest measures in 2002 and then strengthening the law along the way.

Meanwhile, one of the state’s leading gay rights groups, Garden State Equality, was becoming a potent force in New Jersey politics, albeit falling short of its goals in 2009 with the defeat of a pioneering gay-marriage measure.

Yesterday, they stood together in the glow of victory when the “Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights” passed both chambers of the Statehouse in nearly unprecedented speed, with the leader of Garden State Equality standing front and center.

The new law would put teeth in the state’s landmark 2002 anti-bullying legislation, requiring training for all school personnel, “safety teams” and anti-bullying coordinators in every school. The law also spells out precise timelines and consequences for investigations, as well as new measures to combat cyberbullying. It also specifies that every school be awarded a public grade depending on how it handles the issue.

How the law will be enforced remains to be decided.

“A year ago, many of my colleagues were in this room following the agony of defeat,” said Steve Goldstein, the high-profile president of Garden State Equality, referring to the fall of the gay rights bill. “Today, we are here for the thrill of victory. There is no comparison.”

Goldstein has gone out of his way to say the anti-bullying legislation was not a gay rights bill, but some of the credit for its quick run through the Assembly and Senate over the past month goes to Goldstein and his group.

Speaking Out

In an emotional and powerful day of legislative testimony last week, nearly a dozen gay and lesbian students spoke of the humiliation of being harassed by fellow students and largely ignored by the adults in charge.

A key factor in the bill’s rapid approval was the suicide of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who last month killed himself after his roommate’s alleged Internet video streaming of Clementi’s intimate encounter with another male student. The episode drew nationwide attention that one of the bill’s prime sponsors said was clearly a boon to the measure’s momentum.

“For every public policy issue, there is a small window to get it passed,” said state Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex). “Sometimes it’s a tragedy that raises it to prominence.”

The leader of the statewide commission who had led some of the earliest legislation and spearheaded the latest proposal said Garden State Equality’s role was a clear factor in the proposal’s success.

Garden State Equality is “a tremendous advocate for bullied children, and provides strong leadership and support for all efforts to help address bullying in New Jersey,” said Stuart Green, who chaired the New Jersey Coalition for Bullying Awareness.

“They deserve major credit, with other organizations,” he said in an email. “But it is NJ legislators, of both parties, who deserve the most praise — for understanding the importance of this issue, as persons, as parents, as educators, as professionals.”

Indeed, the bill won Assembly and Senate approval with virtually no dissent from legislators yesterday.

Controversial Connections

But its connection with gay rights did spark some controversy, with conservative groups and those on the religious right voicing concerns, if not outright opposition.

Members of an orthodox Jewish organization sought to disrupt the legislation supporters’ press conference yesterday, their pointed questions left unanswered as Buono, Goldstein and other supporters literally walked away from the podium.

And there remains no guarantee that Gov. Chris Christie will sign the measure into law, at least not without some conditions. Republican legislators backed it with nearly the same unanimity as Democrats, but sponsors were making no predictions yesterday, as Christie’s spokesman said it remained under review.

“The bill moved very quickly through the legislature, so we will just want to review it closely,” said Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak.

Nevertheless, the votes in New Jersey were cheered by anti-bullying advocates across the country.

“This legislation is right up there with some of the strongest in the country,” said Joan Duffell, executive director of Committee for Children, a Seattle-based bullying prevention group.

Duffell cited the bills’ attention to mandatory training for teachers and administrators, and its focus on building a strong school climate “where this kind of behavior just wouldn’t fit in.”

Anti-Bullying Coordinators

She said the legislation’s provisions for setting up anti-bullying coordinators in each school were novel, and she gave it credit for trying to tackle cyber-bullying as well.

“Your law moved New Jersey from policy to action, from policy to real prevention,” she said.

And if it took the galvanizing of the state’s leading gay rights group, all the better, Duffell said. It often happens differently in each state, she said, with Massachusetts enacting the nation’s strongest measures this year after the suicide of Phoebe Prince, a recent immigrant from Ireland who was harassed in school and over the Internet about a boy she was dating.

“Bullying is bullying, be it against a gay person or a straight one,” Duffell said.

“It’s true that gay rights groups have taken a lead in some states, because gay students are disproportionately bullied,” she said. “But it says more about people being organized.”