Schools grappling with new anti-bullying law

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The state’s strict new Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights has some local school superintendents wondering how they can enforce the rules, deal with the increased work load, and manage the bureaucratic details without additional time and money.

The statute, signed by Gov. Chris Christie in January and enacted Sept. 1, was prompted by the 2010 suicide of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi. The 18-year-old jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge after his roommate filmed him in a sexual encounter and posted it on the Internet.

The new law requires schools to appoint teams of anti-bullying “coordinators” and “specialists,” heighten awareness of bullying among students through increased character education, and launch an investigation of any suspected incident the day it happens.

It requires school staff to react to bullying that takes place away from school, if it can be shown to “interfere with a student’s education or … severely or pervasively cause physical or emotional harm.”


 

The law is the topic of much debate among teachers and administrators, said Janice Fipp, Northfield superintendent of schools.

“The whole law was mandated on the Rutgers case, and rightly so,” Fipp said. “But with the mandates have to come funding and personnel. When you talk to some of the other districts, some have one individual person just for the paperwork.”

Anti-bullying measures are hardly new in New Jersey schools, Fipp said.

“We have always had an anti-bullying legislation; it wasn’t to this extent, but we very, very actively investigated any accusation of harassment, intimidation or bullying for years in Northfield – it was never tolerated.

“Northfield Community Schools, since I would say 1995, has been on the forefront in regard to offering curriculum that would educate our students in appropriate interactions and with family friends as well as school peers,” she said.

The state’s previous anti-bullying policy, established in 2007, prohibited bullying behavior on school property, at school-sponsored functions and on school buses. It called for schools to outline expectations for students and consequences for bullies, create a framework for reporting and investigation, and keep parents and guardians informed.

Jeff Miller, superintendent of schools for the Somers Point School District, said some schools in the state may not have taken a “proactive stance in getting programs in place” – hence the strengthened measures.

“The Legislature felt the legal requirements for reporting and investigating incidents were vague,” Miller said. “But we were up and running and teachers understood it.” The new legislation, he said, “is looking to change the culture in our schools.”

Most people think of bullying as a pattern of behavior. Under the new law, “It can be a single incident,” said Miller.

That’s part of the controversy, he said.

“Is it a bullying incident or just a normal conflict between peers?” he asked. “The investigation happens regardless, and it has to take place within a certain timeframe. My entire administrative team went through training this summer, and there are a lot of pieces to it.”

Once a report has been made, it goes to the principal and the parent is notified. Within one school day an investigation must take place. Within 10 days of a written report, the investigation must be completed. The results go to the superintendent, who notifies the board of education.

“This is just my opinion,” Miller said, “but I believe there will be adjustments made, because it’s creating a lot of investigations and paperwork.”

A problematic aspect of the law is its requirement that teachers intervene when incidents take place off school grounds, after the school day is done.

Now teachers must intervene “if it’s cyberbullying or something that happens in the playground over the weekend,” Miller said. “If a kid comes into school after dealing with a text or inappropriate Facebook incident, and that incident substantially disrupts the school day, then we have to look at it. It’s a huge task.”

Vincent Palmieri, superintendent of the Upper Township School District, said the lack of case law “has us on the phone with attorneys more than we need to be. There are so many gray areas.”

The anti-bullying campaign “is new in mandate but not new in practice in our district,” Palmieri said. “All the superintendents I work with in our network always took a proactive approach to safety.” He agreed with Miller that “some districts were not doing the right thing.”

“We support the notion, but it’s unfortunate that it came to the point where the state came in to create this,” Palmieri said. “The goal of all this new legislation was to reduce the frequency with which the harassment, intimidation and bullying incidents occur, but basically the law is saying that reduce it means to stop it.”

Asked if the law could prove costly to districts, Palmieri said, “The expense is going to be in time allocation. By law we cannot expend any public funds above and beyond our operating budget. This is an administrative challenge.”

According to retired New Jersey teacher James Burns, author of “The New 3Rs in Education: Respect, Responsibility and Relationships,” “The kneejerk reaction from educators is, ‘Here is another edict from some legislative body, and they haven’t given us any resources.’ Certainly it doesn’t negate the fact that if we witness what looks like bullying – if it looks, sounds, and smells like bullying – we have to do something.”

The prior policy had no teeth, Burns said.

“It was recommended, not mandated. We might not have had this law had Tyler Clementi not jumped off a bridge.”

While attitudes can be shaped and influenced, behavior cannot always be changed, Palmieri noted.

“There’s a little saying, ‘We strive for commitment, but settle for compliance.’ We can’t reach everybody.”


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