State task force gathers ideas about how to fight bias crimes among the young

A task force of state officials created after the release of data showing a three-year increase in the number of bias crimes in New Jersey — many involving young people — met in New Brunswick on Wednesday, the first of four “listening sessions” scheduled to help it study how to stem the tide of hate.

The Interagency Task Force to Combat Youth Bias, comprising representatives of state government branches involved in law enforcement, criminal justice, education and child welfare, was created in August in an executive order issued by Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver. Its marching orders are to study the root causes of bias and intolerance, take stock of existing prevention efforts, and recommend strategies and steps to reduce bias incidents.

Among those on hand was Rachel Wainer Apter, who as director of the state Civil Rights Division is chairing the task force. She said research shows there are a number of factors behind the increase in incidents, including a rise in the number of hate groups.

Social media also plays a role, she said.

“People are far more comfortable saying things on social media than they would be face to face to another person directly,” she said. “We have seen from our political leaders an increased belief that anything goes, and that the truth might not matter, and that we can say things that might be hurtful to other people.”

Earlier this summer, the State Police said that a total of 569 bias incidents were reported by agencies across the state in 2018, an increase of more than 50% over the number reported in 2015, after a decade of more or less steady decline. Of the incidents reported last year, most were motivated by race or ethnicity, roughly a third by the religion of the victim, and 10% were based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

In the executive order creating a task force focusing on bias incidents involving the young, Oliver noted that in many instances either or both the victim or the perpetrator were young people. More than a quarter of the incidents occurred on college campuses and minors made up nearly half of the known offenders in 2018, reflecting a sharp increase over the previous year.

The State Police report shows that blacks were the targets of most racially based incidents, Jews, those based on religion, and Hispanics, bias incidents involving ethnicity.

The rise seen in New Jersey is consistent with what’s happening elsewhere in the United States, with bias incidents across the nation also showing an increase that’s spanned three years.

On Wednesday, the task force heard suggestions about things that can help, and what more could be done.

“I believe very strongly in a peer-to-peer program, one where students have the ability and the skills to be able to facilitate dialoge,” said Nicola Straker, education director of the Anti-Defamation League.

Educator Frank Stebbins said he thought the key to fighting bias among young people is teaching students to be “more human.”

He made his case by quoting a former student: “I’ve had 13 math classes, 20 English classes, six or seven science classes, art, PE and Spanish. But in all that time I’ve been in school, I’ve only had one class that taught me how to be more human.”

The task force will hold three more “listening sessions,” on Nov. 20 in Toms River, Nov. 21 in Bridgeton, and on Nov. 25 in Hackensack.

A report on the panel’s findings and laying out its non-binding recommendations is due to Gov. Phil Murphy and state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal early next year.