WEST ORANGE, NJ — There were 37 cases of Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying confirmed to have taken place in the West Orange School District during the 2015-2016 academic year, according to data presented by Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Rutzky during the Aug. 22 Board of Education meeting.
Each case was substantiated following an investigation conducted by the schools’ anti-bullying specialists, who also found that, out of the 117 complaints made during the past academic year, 80 were not HIB. As defined by the New Jersey Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act, HIB is any act intended to physically or emotionally harm someone that is also motivated directly by a distinctive characteristic of the victim. While he could not comment about the specifics of the incidents, Rutzky told the West Orange Chronicle that the cases typically involved someone making disrespectful comments about another student’s race, gender or religion.
The total of 37 confirmed cases is actually seven more than the district saw during the 2014-2015 school year, though Rutzky is not too concerned by the increase. While the WOSD’s goal is always to have zero HIB cases for the year, the superintendent said 37 is a relatively low number considering that the school system consists of more than 7,000 students. The reason there are not more incidents stems from the “respectful environment” found in all of the district’s 11 schools, he said.
“We have students who absolutely respect each other and understand how to behave when they come to school,” Rutzky said in an Aug. 26 phone interview. “I think the administrators and teachers and guidance counselors who work with students do a phenomenal job of helping kids learn about being respectful to each other and how to interact with each other. We talk about (the fact that) you don’t have to like somebody, but you do have to respect them. Everybody’s not going to be your friend, but you do have to respect them.”
Rutzky added that comparisons cannot really be made between yearly data or even school statistics since every student handles problems differently. This can be seen in the 2015-2016 figures, which showed that most schools fell into the range of having one to three confirmed HIB cases regardless of age level. This included Gregory Elementary School, with two HIB cases out of 21 complaints; Hazel Elementary School, with three cases out of six complaints; Kelly Elementary School, with one case out of seven complaints; Redwood Elementary School, with two cases out of six complaints; St. Cloud Elementary School, with one case out of 16 complaints; Washington Elementary School, with three cases out of 13 complaints; Edison Central Six School, with one case out of four complaints; and West Orange High School, with three cases out of 11 complaints.
The only exceptions were Liberty Middle School, Mount Pleasant Elementary School and Roosevelt Middle School. Liberty actually had the highest HIB numbers in the district, with 12 confirmed cases out of 20 complaints; Mount Pleasant had the second highest, with nine confirmed cases out of 12 complaints. At the other end of the spectrum, Roosevelt had the lowest HIB numbers, with zero cases out of one complaint.
There are always bound to be conflicts at schools as children deal with maturity issues or troubles at home, Rutzky said. He pointed out that the drama of dating also can lead to problems at the middle and high school levels as well. But the important thing, he stressed, is that WOSD staff are there to make sure these situations do not escalate into becoming HIB incidents.
“Our goal is to work with every single individual student to really help them work through some of those problems they may be having,” Rutzky said. “We have to help students through the process of dealing with their emotions and learning how to channel those emotions in a different way. And maybe most importantly, we really have to help students understand and teach them that it’s absolutely OK to ask for help.”
The work of each school’s safety team is also an asset in combating HIB districtwide, Rutzky said. The principal-appointed teams — which he said consist of administrators, teachers, community members and other stakeholders — analyze HIB data for their own schools and recommend policies on how to stop certain issues from reoccurring. For instance, the superintendent said that if the team sees a multitude of incidents happening at lunchtime, it can suggest increasing the amount of supervision in the cafeteria.
Additionally, Rutzky said WOSD anti-bullying coordinators and specialists receive regular training on the state’s anti-bullying law so that they know exactly what they are supposed to do when conducting investigations.
Cheryl Butler, the district’s anti-bullying coordinator, did not respond to request for comment before press time Aug. 30.
District staff members are not the only ones taught about HIB. Board of Education Vice President Mark Robertson pointed out that students are constantly learning about the importance of sensitivity, whether through lessons learned in classroom activities or through messages posted on school walls. Additionally, Robertson said teachers and administrators always keep a watchful eye over the children to ensure that HIB is not taking place.
Robertson said that the resulting 37 confirmed cases are “statistically miniscule” when compared to the high number of students attending the district, and this speaks to the “phenomenal job” the WOSD faculty is doing in controlling HIB. But the vice president said there is always room for improvement. Specifically, he would like to see more staff diversity training since West Orange is home to people of so many different backgrounds. That way, he said people throughout the district will be more understanding of one another’s cultures, reducing the likelihood of HIB taking place.
“Any time you can further help in terms of sensitivity from a diversity standpoint — whether it’s gender diversity or racial diversity or ethnic diversity — that can help to avoid areas where someone may be intentionally or unintentionally saying something demeaning or excluding to another student,” Robertson said. “Diversity and cross-cultural communications training can only help us do better what we’re already doing, I think, very well.”
The WOSD’s anti-bullying policy, which is based on the state’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act, outlines exactly what constitutes an HIB incident and how an investigation into a reported event should be handled. Specifically, it states that the school principal must instruct the school anti-bullying specialist to launch an investigation into an alleged HIB event within one day of receiving a report. In the 10 days that follow, the specialist must look into the situation and decide whether it constitutes HIB. Once the investigation is complete, the specialist has two days to provide the superintendent with all findings.
The superintendent should then report what the investigation results were and whether any action was taken to remedy the situation to the Board of Education at its next meeting. The parents of all children involved should then be informed of the results within the next five days thereafter. If they disagree with the findings, parents can ask for an executive session hearing before the board, which must take place within the succeeding 10 days of the request. The board can then choose to affirm, reject or modify the decision.
If the parents still disagree, they may appeal the board’s decision to the New Jersey commissioner of education within 90 days. They may also file a complaint with the Division of Civil Rights within 180 days of any HIB incident.
CORRECTION: This story initially incorrectly stated that the 37 Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying cases had occurred from January through June 2016. In fact, those 37 cases occurred during the entire 2015-2016 school year. Additionally, the 30 cases from the year before referred to in the story occurred in the 2014-2015 school year. The story has been updated to correct these errors.