BERKELEY HEIGHTS, NJ – Assistant Principal of Columbia Middle School Grace Acosta along with Assistant Principals of Governor Livingston High School Tara Oliveira and Lawrence Seid presented the annual violence, HIB (Harassment, Intimidation, Bullying) and vandalism report at the Thursday, Oct. 20 Board of Education (BOE) meeting.

HIB is defined as “Any gesture, any written, verbal or physical act, or any electronic communication whether it be a single incident or a series of incidents, that is reasonably perceived as being motivated either by any actual or perceived characteristic, such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression of a mental, physical or sensory disability that takes place on school property, at any school – sponsored function, on a school bus or off school grounds in cases in which a school employee is made aware of such actions.”

Compared to 2015, the number of confirmed HIB incidents decreased from 28 to 22 in 2016 within the entire district. In 2015, there were 60 HIB investigations in the district compared to 58 in 2016. The majority of both the HIB investigations and confirmed HIB cases took place in the middle school. Seid explained that the middle schoolers are more likely to “test boundaries” than other age groups. He noted that the number of HIB cases drops again among the high school students.

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The district is actively trying to reduce HIB incidents by “identifying common behaviors” and “hot spots” as well as promoting programs that will help students to understand the HIB process and consequences of such behaviors that can be identified as harassment, intimidation and bullying. During the 2016-2017 school year, the district is focusing in “discriminating between bullying and conflict.” The district is also providing students with character education in order to build self-esteem and a positive learning environment. School counselors are also teaching “lessons of kindness” in classrooms. Seid noted that social media continues to be a challenge within the student body. 

An example of promoting kindness and discouraging students to engage in offensive behavior is the “Week of Respect” which was celebrated in all district schools during the first week of October. During the week, special attention was drawn to positive atmosphere via age-appropriate activities and exhibitions in all schools. The Red Ribbon Week will be celebrated from Oct. 23 to Oct. 31 in the district. The National Red Ribbon Campaign provides citizens with the opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to drug-free lifestyles.

In addition to programs geared towards students, the district continues to provide staff programs and information sessions for parents regarding HIB. The district is also working with both the Berkeley Heights and Mountainside Police Departments.

In 2016, cases of “violence” spiked in the district with 11 confirmed incidents compared to only two cases in 2014 and three cases in 2015. There was one vandalism incident in the district in 2016 and two incidents of violence utilizing weapons. Oliveira noted that 2016 was “an unusual year” in terms of violent incidents. She also explained that there were no firearms involved in the weapon category. Superintendent Judith Rattner noted that by looking at the numbers, Berkeley Heights may appear “less safe” that some other Union County districts, however, she pointed out that Berkeley Heights errs on the side of caution when identifying incidents at schools.

The consequences for offensive behavior often include a student or parent conference; classroom, lunch, office or administrative detention; restitution and restoration; individual or group counseling; referral to therapy or treatment; and referral to intervention and referral services team. Five administrative detentions were given to students both in 2015 and 2016. However, there were 20 out-of-school suspensions in 2016 compared to only three such suspensions in 2015 and 2014.

The presentation was based on the state required format regarding HIB. Rattner declined further details on the specific types of incidents that took place without counseling the district attorney first.