The support for tougher anti-bullying legislation was nearly unanimous in the Statehouse yesterday, with committees approving it without dissent and final passage by the Assembly and the Senate all but assured.
But the more difficult part will come in the scores of details as to how the future law will be enforced in school hallways, buses and even homes at night, with some strong supporters acknowledging there are sure to be difficult questions ahead, legal and otherwise.
With near unprecedented speed, the "Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights" will go from submission on November 8 to possible final passage as soon as next week, with enough votes among just the primary sponsors, Republican and Democrat.
The new law would put teeth in the state’s landmark 2002 anti-bullying legislation, requiring training for all school personnel, “safety teams” and anti-bullying coordinators in every school. The law also spells out precise timelines and consequences for investigations, as well as new measures to combat cyberbullying. It also specifies that every school be awarded a public grade depending on how it handles the issue.
Following a day of emotional testimony from bullied students, state Assemblyman Patrick Diegnan Jr. (D-Middlesex) closed the second of two lengthy committee hearings with a rare moment of partisan peace between Democrats and Republicans.
“Down here in Trenton there is this perception in the newspapers about Republicans hating the Democrats,” said Diegnan, chairman of the Assembly’s education committee. “Today, I couldn’t have been prouder to be serving with every member of this committee.”
But behind the scenes remained some difficult decisions that could be required, some in possible last-minute amendments on the legislative floor, over the logistics of the law, the wording of its definitions and the cost of training and other support.
Representing what is often the frontline in the battle against bullying, the state’s principals and supervisors association sent three people to testify and left with a list of concerns.
A central question was the role of the principal, compared with that of the new safety teams, to promote a better school climate. The same concerns were raised about anti-bullying coordinators, whose role is to give students and families a clear place to turn.
“We hear that over and over,” said Stuart Green, chairman of the New Jersey Commission on Bullying in Schools. “They don’t know who in the school to go to, and go from person to person to person, each of whom feel they don’t have the job to handle it.”
Under the proposed law, a school would designate one person who would do the intake on the incident and then conduct the investigation within 10 days. The coordinator’s contact information would be displayed on a school website’s home page.
But the prescriptive nature of the law, in general, worried some. Would a 10-day timeframe overly limit the extent of an investigation? Or should the legislature be mandating who serves on what committee?
“The issue we have is how they want to legislate the roles of the school,“ said Debra Bradley, a lobbyist with the principals association, “where the principal has got to develop a climate and pull together the best team that is effective with kids and with staff. "
“But they are legislating who is on the team and taking away principal’s role to do that,” she said.
Some legislators said the responsibility will ultimately rest with the principal anyway. This is especially true in small schools or elementary schools, where extra staff or even one free guidance counselor isn’t always easy to come by. Others wondered how well a guidance counselor would investigate his or her peers.
“The principal does need to be the leader in that if you really want to change school climate and culture,” said Patricia Wright, superintendent of Spring Lake Borough’s lone school and also a member of the anti-bullying coalition.
But she said that requires an entire school be aware of the topic, not just the school leadership or a designated member.
“That’s what happens too often with bullying, it is relegated to the health class or the guidance counselor,” she said. “In my school, the custodians are trained, the secretaries are trained, everyone knows the language we teach and expectation are clear with everyone in the building.”
Green said that is fine, but minimum requirements do need to be placed on schools to ensure that at least some fundamental steps are taken.
“From a parent's point of view, that kind of flexibility left to principals taken across the state to thousands of buildings, where many of them don’t get it, you build in that flexibility and you don’t get what kids need.”