Does New Jersey’s anti-bullying law address racism in schools?

A Camden County lacrosse team’s season was canceled this month after students from Haddonfield uttered a racial slur at a member of the Sterling High School track team in Somerdale.

In a similar incident last weekend, members of Linwood’s Mainland Regional High School boys crew team were accused of taunting a black rower on Absegami High School’s crew team during a meet at Lake Lenape in Mays Landing. The punishment for those students has not been disclosed by the Mainland superintendent, but The Press has been told the boys involved have been removed from the team.

State data show such incidents are on the decline in schools, which many attribute to New Jersey’s anti-bullying law. The 2010 law established procedures and reporting requirements to help districts deal with harassment, intimidation and bullying, known collectively to school officials as HIB.

But under the law, how punishments for those incidents are doled out is entirely up to the school district.

Greater Egg Harbor Regional Superintendent John Keenan, who oversees three high schools, including Absegami, said there is no “one-size-fits-all” discipline for a violation because each situation is unique.

State data show most HIB violations result in detentions as well as individual counseling and parent and student conferences.

Christopher Kobik, superintendent of the Lower Cape May Regional School District, said racial bias may extend beyond the scope of the HIB law.

“HIB can address it when it fits; however, bias by definition has a wider scope that extends beyond individuals to practices and organizations,” Kobik said, noting his district references affirmative action policies for guidance, as well.

Although there haven’t been studies on its effectiveness, Rutgers University psychology professor Paul Boxer said the HIB law is successful in placing accountability on schools.

“There’s no leeway as far as schools not being able to follow every step. … I think it’s also a good thing in terms of really making it clear to students the potential severity of what they’ve done,” said Boxer, director of the Center on Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, who was also involved in making recommendations to the state regarding the law.

Data show most HIB incidents in New Jersey are related to “other distinguishing characteristics” of a person, but the second most prevalent target is a person’s race.

Kaleem Shabazz, president of the Atlantic City NAACP, said schools are doing a good job in reacting to racism, but there needs to be more “proactive” work, especially during a time when people may feel more emboldened to make such comments.

“We have to do more to prevent some of these incidents and let people know they should not interact with people like that,” Shabazz said. “It’s hard to look at ourselves and say we have ingrained racist feelings … but unfortunately, it’s here.”

He said the local NACCP is working with the Anti-Defamation League and offered to provide resources to schools in Atlantic County to combat racism and bullying.

Experts say there is no easy explanation for why students make racist comments. In the case at Lake Lenape, Boxer said the fact that a competition was going on could have been a contributing factor. Boxer said kids may also feel more empowered when they are in a group setting.

“They get messages from their parents, they get messages from the media about what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate,” Boxer said. “It’s not like racism in American society is something that just came out of nowhere.”

Keenan said training is a big part of a school’s anti-bullying procedures, and that involves not only staff but students. Many schools also have anonymous reporting apps such as STOPit, which is used by the Greater Egg schools.

Regardless of the punishment, Absegami’s Myasia Joga wants an in-person apology from the students at Mainland Regional High School who she says taunted her.

“I need to read that they apologized, but it still isn’t enough,” the 16-year-old told The Press of Atlantic City earlier this week.

Mainland has apologized in writing. Superintendent Mark Marrone declined to comment on the situation further.