Ridgewood High School junior Aidan Holt cares about his classmates and their mental health. So much so, he’s become a student voice on the North Jersey Anti-Bullying Task Force. It was put together last year by Rep. Josh Gottheimer and advocate Jane Clementi, whose son Tyler Clementi died by suicide after bullying at Rutgers University.
“Teaching kids what is the rights and the wrongs. Teaching kids to think before they speak, not only in-person but online,” Holt said.
On Thursday, the group of mental health advocates, teachers, law enforcement, parents and students unveiled a five-point action plan.
“We know one in five kids are bullied, and we know about 30% don’t report a bullying incident to anyone, to a teacher, a parent, so the problem is growing,” Gottheimer said.
New Jersey has some of the strongest anti-bullying laws but Gottheimer says there’s room for improvement, including changing the state’s definition of bullying, strengthening investigations, training more teachers and staff, adding mental health services into schools and tackling cyberbullying earlier.
Holt is already doing his part. He noticed a lot of kids with no one to sit with in the cafeteria and decided to act.
“They start to walk around, and the kids they were friends with in middle school don’t want to hang out anymore because they don’t do what they do, or stuff like that, and they kind of feel that loneliness,” Holt said. “I feel like aggressors, they definitely look for the easy victim.”
So he created Fresh Start, a lunch group that welcomes all classmates.
“You can definitely see when they’re expressing their story to us, the embarrassment that they did feel and how much happier they are now,” Holt said.
Gottheimer said there’s a number of barriers that exist around reporting bullying.
“That’s something we heard a lot, the bureaucracy, the bullying bureaucracy. And you know the idea is we have to cut the red tape,” he said. “How to make sure the whole reporting structure is not a penalty for the schools themselves. It’s not a disincentive”
Holt says if bullying is not being investigated properly, it encourages the aggressor to continue bullying and it makes the victim lose hope. For now, he’s making sure students at his school know they’re not alone.