Despite having some of the toughest bullying laws on the books, New Jersey can drastically improve its approach to making every student feel safe in and out of school, according to a report from an anti-bullying task force created by a federal lawmaker.

The report released Thursday by the North Jersey Anti-Bullying Task Force suggests the state has the ability to improve investigations into bullying incidents, and can better address the problem by redefining the issue altogether.

"Many incidents are up to the interpretations of the anti-bullying specialists, and that can mean that there can be big variations between schools and districts," said Jane Clementi, chair of the task force and mother of late Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, who took his own life after being a victim of cyberbullying.

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The state's Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights requires that the principal of each school appoint  an anti-bullying specialist — a guidance counselor or school psychologist, for example. But this additional task isn't always a breeze to handle, according to Carla Mancuso, special education teacher and reading specialist at High Point High School in Wantage. The ABS, she said, typically wears many hats and perhaps can't devote as much time as necessary to addressing incidents of bullying.

"That's like ... you pull a doctor from the third floor who's doing his rounds, to now come in and do an intake for an emergency victim — it doesn't work, there's too many starts and stops," Mancuso said.

Mancuso added that some schools may disincentivized to report incidents "because it goes against their reputation."

"Also, the workload that's involved — it's incredible," she said.

The task force recommends, among many other suggestions, that the state allow a third party to advocate on behalf of a student, parent, district, and/or outside organization, and to be used as a resource.

Another issue within the state's laws, according to the task force's report, is no mandate for a professional follow-up visit with students involved in bullying incidents.

Dr. Sarah Amador, a licensed clinical psychologist with Psychological Associates of New Jersey, said her own clinical experience and research has proven that many aggressors have underlying challenges that may be motivating their bullying behavior. Targets of bullying, she added, experience additional trauma as a result of bullying incidents.

"It's an incredible area of concern that there isn't a follow-up," Amador said.

The task force also found that cyberbullying incidents, which are becoming increasingly prevalent, "are not being prevented or resolved as successfully as they could be." Many schools do not explicitly acknowledge cyberbullying in their policies, or are unable to combat the problem because of limited resources.

"Most instances of cyberbullying are occurring outside of class, which makes it hard for schools to prevent such instances from occurring," said Aidan Holt, a junior at Ridgewood High School. "It is critical to promote and support the investigation of cyberbullying incidents affecting a student. This includes incidents that take place outside of school, as these are most common."

The task force also recommended that bullying prevention and investigation strategies be adapted to address instances of cyberbullying on online learning platforms.

The task force is the first element of a five-point Anti-Bullying Action Plan unveiled by Congressman Josh Gottheimer, NJ-5, in January. Gottheimer said the new recommendations will be crucial for helping schools and policymakers improve anti-bullying policies, whether schools are starting the year remotely or in the classroom.

"Too many children and students are bullied at school and online," Gottheimer said. "Too many are harmed, whether it be their academic performance, or physical or psychological harm. And far too many may not see a solution."

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