SOMERSET, N.J. – New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has signed an anti-bullying bill that advocates say is the toughest of its kind in the nation, giving a sense of progress to the people attending a conference dedicated to preventing suicide by gay young people.
The “anti-bullying bill of rights” had been in the works for several months, but it picked up steam in the state Legislature after Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old Rutgers University student, committed suicide in September 2010. Clementi’s roommate and a third Rutgers student were charged with using a webcam to spy on Clementi during his dorm-room liaison with a man days before the suicide.
Christie signed the law Wednesday but did not announce it. Spokesman Michael Drewniak confirmed the signing on Thursday.
The Clementi incident, along a spate of high-profile suicides of other gay youth in September and October, turned an issue that had long been a concern for some in the gay community into a national concern that attracted the public attention of President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and entertainers like Ellen DeGeneres and Margaret Cho.
The suicides are seen as extreme reactions to bullying, a problem that affects many students, but particularly young gays and lesbians.
“New Jersey is sending a powerful message to every child that school will be a safe place for them to learn and grow, not a place for them to dread,” said state Sen. Barbara Buono, a Democrat from Metuchen and one of the sponsors of the new law.
In 2002, New Jersey joined a wave of states that adopted anti-bullying laws in the aftermath of the Columbine school shootings. But some lawmakers said they quickly realized that law didn’t offer enough protections for those who are persistently bullied.
The retooled law requires anti-bullying programs and policies in public schools. Previously, like the bullying laws in most states, such measures had only been recommended. Now, schools will be required to have anti-bullying specialists and report incidents to the state.
While many schools already took some of those steps, Steven Goldstein, chairman of the gay rights group Garden State Equality, said policies haven’t always been consistently followed because so many of their provisions were encouraged but not mandated.
“It is true that out of that tragedy has come a law that will save other Tyler Clementi’s in the future,” said Goldstein, who added that he didn’t want to be seen as capitalizing on Clementi’s death.
The law also requires the codes of conduct at public colleges to address bullying.
The bill breezed through the Legislature. Though some social conservatives opposed the measure, it had overwhelming support from both Democrats and Republicans.
“While learning to deal with hurt feelings and unkind treatment are part of growing up, there are certain children who are victims of constant, vicious threats and intimidation,” said state Sen. Diane Allen, a Republican from Edgewater Park who was one of the main sponsors of the law. “Not only does bullying jeopardize the victims’ physical and emotional well-being, it impedes their ability to learn. I commend Governor Christie for signing this legislation into law.”
Word of the signing spread quickly Thursday at a conference in Somerset dealing with the problem of suicides among gay youth.
Rutgers was one of the organizers of the event, which was planned before Clementi’s suicide. Speakers were concentrating on how to make sure gay youth feel connected and supported.
One conference attendee, Kim Otto of Haddonfield, was trying to reach her 17-year-old son, John, to share the news.
John, who is gay, testified before lawmakers last year that he had considered suicide because of bullying at his school in the Philadelphia suburbs.
“I think that with these new measures in place there’s going to be more of a safety net,” Kim Otto said.
Mulvihill reported from Haddonfield.