As New Jersey residents and folks who are very involved in all aspects of cyberbullying – except actually doing it – we’ve seen a lot of the nuance around NJ’s Harassment, Bullying and Intimidation (HIB) Laws. These laws are generally accepted to be some of the toughest in the country. We saw the following posted on Reddit Monday evening by someone who claims to be a NJ high school student (slightly edited for clarity and length):
“Today, I was suspended from school. The reason? I made an offensive comment about a girl who goes to my school in a private Facebook chat on Saturday night. A friend of hers (who also hates me) was then added to the chat briefly (I say briefly because he was removed in about 2 minutes). In 2 short minutes that person had enough time to screenshot what I said about the girl and send it to her. The girl then printed out my comments and showed the school vice-principal, who promptly suspended me on the grounds of “cyber-bullying.”
How is this cyber-bullying? I made a comment about a person in a private chat with no intention of her ever seeing the comment. Is gossip bullying too? I know NJ HIB laws are strict but how is this punishment at all justified and more importantly, LEGAL? If you know anything about the laws, please give me some information, or re-direct me to somewhere I can find it. Thank you for reading!”
You might think that this example is school administration overreach, but the law itself and how it must be applied is all that matters here. Here’s the section of the New Jersey law that applies:
“”Harassment, intimidation or bullying” means any gesture, any written, verbal or physical act, or any electronic communication…that is reasonably perceived as being motivated either by any actual or perceived characteristic… that takes place on school property, at any school-sponsored function, on a school bus, or off school grounds as, that substantially disrupts or interferes with the orderly operation of the school or the rights of other students”
New Jersey schools must have an HIB policy and procedures, and don’t have any option but to follow up on each and every cyberbullying complaint, even if it happens outside the school, and levy a punishment that seems just. Perhaps the suspension is too much but we’re sure the school is relying on some sort of precedent, and they were given proof in writing of the offense.
We checked in with a friend who is a New Jersey Vice Principal (not at the school at hand in this case). Here is what he had to say:
“HIB laws include bullying in person or cyber in or out of school. There was probably an investigation into this by the HIB Coordinator at which point they determined [a suspension} was warranted. I actually think it is out of control that this becomes HIB. Parents need to parent better. Education doesn’t have the wherewithal to keep up that with social media. In fact, even the police are perplexed by some cases and do not know how to proceed.“
It appears that the law here is working as it was intended. New Jersey means for these cases to be judged harshly. Of course, the way to avoid situations such as this is to avoiding making offensive comments about your peers. Even things that are said “in private” can become public, and fair game for stern consequences.
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