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New Jersey Schools Try New Ways to Prevent Bullying

School officials are implementing new rules to prevent bullying and improve the mental health of teens. But some of the new policies, like a cellphone ban, are controversial. In 2021, 16 percent of high schoolers said they had been cyber bullied.

A child holds an anti-bullying sign
A child holds an anti-bullying sign at Central Regional High School, one of several schools introducing new programs to address bullying and mental health.
Lori M. Nichols/TNS
Red Bank Regional High School is implementing a new cell phone ban this year. Freshmen must store their mobile devices in special cell phone towers during class.

The new policy in the 1,200-student Monmouth County, N.J., school is designed keep students focused — and to help stop kids from using their phones to bully classmates. It is one of several initiatives and programs New Jersey schools are implementing this year amid calls for more efforts to prevent bullying and improve the mental health of students nationwide.

“Kids are feeling very isolated right now. It’s a rough time,” said Suzanne Keller, supervisor of The Source, a school-based youth services program at Red Bank Regional High School. “We’re all going through a rough time, globally, not just as a nation, but globally.”

New Jersey drew headlines last school year after two teen suicides and several bullying incidents in schools. Many school districts are enacting new policies this year to try to combat bullying and focus on student mental health.

Some of the measures, including the new cell phone ban at Red Bank Regional High School, are controversial. Administrators say the rule is meant to curb distraction and cyberbullying in school, but some students and parents say it is unfair and unnecessary.

Parents in other districts have pushed back on similar cell phone bans out of concern students would be without their cell phones in an emergency.

Some school administrators and counselors say they need to do whatever they can to address the mental health emergency among New Jersey teens. Officials and experts say the U.S. is facing an acute mental health crisis made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2021, 22 percent of Black and Hispanic high school students seriously considered attempting suicide, according to a report released in February by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During the same year, 23 percent of white students and 18 percent of Asian students also seriously considered attempting suicide.

Additionally, 41 percent of LGBTQ+ young people seriously considered attempting suicide in the past year, according to a survey from The Trevor Project.

Many in New Jersey were shaken by several youth suicides last school year.

In February, the suicide of 14-year-old Central Regional High School student Adriana Kuch drew national headlines and resulted in the arrest of four of her classmates. The students were charged in connection with a filmed hallway attack on Kuch that occurred days before her death.

Video of the attack was circulated on social media, Kuch’s family said. The same month, 11-year-old Felicia LoAlbo-Melendez died by suicide at a Mount Holly middle school after being bullied in school and online, her mother said.

School districts in New Jersey reported 30,568 incidents of violence, vandalism, weapons, substance use, and harassment, intimidation and bullying in the 2021-21 school year, according to the latest data from the state Department of Education.

Mental health experts say suicide is a complex topic and research shows bullying alone is not thought to directly cause people to take their own lives. But, bullying can be a contributing factor in suicides, experts say.

The two teen deaths in New Jersey put a spotlight on how schools are handling bullying allegations and school fights.

The Central Regional School District — which serves students in grades 9 to 12 from Berkeley Township, Island Heights, Ocean Gate, Seaside Heights and Seaside Park — announced a series of initiatives to evaluate and improve the district’s approach to bullying in response to outrage over Kuch’s death and other allegations of school violence.

The initiatives included: organizing a steering committee of parents and community leaders to evaluate and update the school’s approach to bullying and other issues; bringing in an outside group to examine district policies and response to crises; and reviewing the district’s cell phone policy.

Additional initiatives that were planned included: establishing a toll-free hotline operated by an outside party for students to call anonymously; arranging guest speakers for student assemblies focused on avoiding and preventing risky behaviors; and arranging for education and information sessions for parents to help them better understand bullying, harassment and other issues impacting students.

The Central Regional school district also planned to continue training staff and parents to recognize potential problems and to improve communications with the community.

When asked to provide an update on the district’s new anti-bullying and mental health initiatives, Central Regional Acting Superintendent Douglas Corbett said the district was busy preparing for the new school year.

In August, Central Regional’s school board officially adopted a new policy for cell phones and electronic devices stating the district reserves the right to search a student’s phone “if there is reasonable suspicion that district or Board policies, rules or regulations have been violated, as well as if there is a reasonable suspicion that the electronic mobile device contains information that may be pertinent to a school investigation.”

Although school officials do have the authority to search and seize a cell phone, laptop or other personal property for evidence that a student is violating school rules, the New Jersey School Boards Association advises officials “exercise discretion in deciding to conduct a search.”

“Search and seizure are intrusive acts and care should be taken to evaluate whether or not the circumstances of the policy violation make it necessary,” according to the New Jersey School Boards Association.

The cases of Kuch and LoAlbo-Melendez helped put a spotlight on cyberbullying. In 2021, 16 percent of high school students said they were electronically bullied, including through texting, Instagram, Facebook or other social media, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“There’s a lot of bullying going on, on the phones. We call them ‘keyboard warriors’ and what they can say on their cell phone, when they’re not talking to somebody face-to-face, can be very nasty,” said Keller, who offers mental health, well-being and educational programs through The Source at Red Bank Regional High School.

The new policy requiring Red Bank Regional High School students to put their phones in a cell phone tower upon entering class only affects freshmen this year. Incoming sophomores, juniors and seniors will not be required to turn over their phones. But, the policy will be carried forward with each grade, meaning eventually all students in the school will be impacted.

Other schools have similar policies. Maxson Middle School in Plainfield first gained attention back in 2019 when it asked students to lock their phones away in pouches from the first to the last bell.

In December 2021, Middle Township Middle School in Cape May County announced it would require students to lock cell phones away before the start of classes in response to events related to social media within the middle school and TikTok trends nationwide.

“We understand the need for students to have cell phones to go to and from school, but the ongoing situations we are handling are disruptive to the educational process,” Middle Township Middle School Principal Jeffrey Ortman said in a letter announcing the policy.

When asked how Red Bank students might contact adults in case of emergency, Keller said Red Bank Regional School District would work to accommodate student needs.

“If it is a true emergency, we’re always going to assist the student and make sure that we help them call home or we get a hold of somebody for them,” Keller said. “There’s enough support in the building between the teacher and our program and guidance counselors and the administrative team.”

Coming back after COVID-19, Keller said faculty and staff also noticed students increasingly struggling with self-regulating anxiety. So, the district dedicated funds to educate students on social and emotional learning skills and strategies.

“One of the first things we did was just teach kids how to breathe and not react. And we came out with ‘pause, breathe, before you respond,’” Keller said. “All the teachers have this sign in the classroom and we said it every day after morning announcements, so it became pervasive throughout the school.”

In the spring, the state announced a new support network to help school districts get mental health help for students, starting on the first day of the 2023-2024 school year.

Fifteen organizations were awarded contracts to run mental health services through the state’s new regional hub program, state officials said. The New Jersey Statewide Student Support Services network, or NJ4S, will be overseen by the state Department of Children and Families.

Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration also announced the state Department of Education is working with the Rutgers University Center for Comprehensive School Mental Health to provide three years of training to staff in 50 selected schools to improve the ways they identify struggling students, address their needs in school and refer them to proper services if they need more help.

The school board of Ramapo Indian Hills Regional High School District in Bergen County recently walked back plans to cancel all mental health programs for the coming school year. The board initially voted 4-4 to approve the cuts in July. But, following backlash from community members, the school board held an emergency vote in early August to renew its contracts for mental health services.

“Rest assured, along with my fellow board members, I will continue to prioritize the mental health and wellbeing of this district’s students,” Ramapo Indian Hills Regional School Board President Judith Sullivan said in a statement addressing the recent development.

Some districts, including West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District, have found success partnering with outside agencies to provide services. Since 2019, West Windsor- Plainsboro has run a program which puts mental health clinicians in schools. Through a partnership with Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care, the district’s roughly 9,000 students can visit clinicians located on-site at the middle and high schools for mental health concerns, crisis intervention and screenings.

The Mercer County district did 100 screenings during the 2022-23 school year for mental health and suicidal ideation. The program also helped some students in trouble get admitted to hospitals, rather than waiting for days in emergency rooms, which can be traumatizing and keep them from seeking help during future crises, officials said.

“That is definitely a great assistance to the family, to the student ultimately, in getting them access to care,” said West Windsor-Plainsboro Deputy Superintendent Lee McDonald. “That could be something as little as one-to one-outside counseling and therapy with a licensed professional counselor. That could be full hospitalization, that can be a partial program — there’s a lot of different levels.”

The district also pays for Gaggle, a tool that monitors student internet activities for signs that they are a risk to themselves or others. It also hired four behavioral health counselors for its schools, though it could use eight if allowed to spend more, officials said.

West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District spent time fostering student-led and parent-led groups about to mental health awareness.

“You can do all the right things and there’s still other factors that you cannot control, that will have influence. But, I think as a school district we’re doing everything that we can to be there for our students,” said McDonald.

“Is there room to improve? Always, that’s why we have constant conversations about this topic,” McDonald said. “That’s important.”

Editor's Note: If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. ©2023 Advance Local Media LLC. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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