Concerned that some recent incidents of bullying in cyberspace have taken on an anti-Semitic tone, the Anti-Defamation League is calling for a toughening of state law to prevent hateful text messaging and harassment via Internet websites.
Etzion Neuer, director of the ADL’s New Jersey region, said he has received complaints from several parents whose teenagers have been tormented with anti-Semitic e-mails and Web postings.
Neuer is working with Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Dist. 37) to revise New Jersey’s law on bullying.
Huttle advocates tightening the law by requiring school districts to have a single uniform policy for penalizing young offenders.
“We have to have the consequences in school. This is where it is stemming from,” she told NJJN. “We need to give the school districts the responsibility to suspend or expel people.”
The bill calls for discipline after alleged bullies are given hearings before councils made up of students, administrators, and teachers, she said.
“Even though the anti-bullying law is already on the books, it is not being followed by many schools,” Neuer said. “Schools have to create consequences for a kid who bullies. Schools need to have programs to form anti-bullying task forces that involve school staffs, administrators, and parents.”
Among the complaints Neuer has received are those from two parents who reported that their daughters received anti-Semitic text messages.
A third said a website tormented her son as “Jewish Jeff” and repeated old stereotypes about Jews and money.
“I hear from parents on a regular basis, and those are very painful calls to get,” Neuer said. “Parents are often in a terrible position. They want to be advocates for their child, but they are often seen as overprotective. The children don’t tell their parents because they don’t want to be seen as needing their parents.”
“Cyberbullying is a function of modernity and new media,” he added. “Perhaps the biggest challenge is we are always a step behind the technology.”
Huttle said she is aware of the terrible effects bullying can have on its victims.
“We have seen suicidal tendencies among students in school, on school ground, and on the Internet. It has gotten much worse than it was when we were kids growing up,” she said.
Wendy Sabin, the Jewish Family Service social work consultant at Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell, views cyberbullying as a growing problem, especially among girls in middle schools. Sabin also serves as health liaison at the Glenfield Middle School in her hometown of Montclair.
“These kids are being tortured and harassed, and very often the parents do not know. They are hiding it, and what that speaks to is the level of parental involvement in our kids’ lives,” she said.
“Why do kids cyberbully? Because of anger, revenge, frustration, boredom, or even humor, like playing a prank,” said Sabin. “Because it is so easy to remain anonymous is one reason why people do it. They think they can’t get caught because they are bullying in cyberspace.”
So far, however, Sabin said, she herself has “not seen any anti-Semitism with relation to cyberbullying.”
A social networking site called Formspring, which allows users to post messages to Facebook anonymously, has been especially troubling to victimized teens and their parents.
“Formspring is a horrible thing for teenagers to be on,” Sabin said. “It takes cybercruelty to a new low by making it appear consensual. It invites others to bash you — for example, ‘I hate you. You’re slutty.’ It is very nasty commentary.”
The social worker, who has conducted synagogue workshops on cyberbullying, suggests parents should be stricter in policing their youngsters’ Internet use.
Huttle said parents and school administrators must work together.
“Of course the parents are responsible,” said the assemblywoman. “But if it is not being addressed by the parents, it must be addressed by the school districts.”
Huttle is working on drafting the legislation and hopes to win bipartisan support after she introduces it next month. “It is not a Democratic or Republican bill,” she said. “It is a bill that affects families. It is an issue that crosses party lines.”