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Fine Print: Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act

Christie’s signature finally in place, tough new anti-bullying law raises some questions about costs.

Synopsis: Approved by the Senate and Assembly in November and signed into law by Gov. Chris Christie on Wednesday, the sweeping bill (S2392/A3466) puts new requirements on districts to address bullying in their schools.

Prime sponsors: Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen) and Sens. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), Diane Allen (R-Burlington), and Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen)

What it means: Though passed resoundingly by both chambers, the bill that some call the toughest anti-bullying measure in the country was by no means assured of becoming law, at least in its full form. Christie had been noncommittal about the measure and was said to be considering a conditional veto of some of its provisions. Yesterday, his office put out no separate press release announcing the signing, but the governor made brief comments at an afternoon press conference.

Christie’s words: "This piece of legislation -- while probably not everything I would want it to be -- I also think it’s important that we send a very strong message regarding how we are supposed to be conducting ourselves in interactions among students. On balance, I decided to sign it."

Key section: The act has many detailed requirements for school staffing, training, and instruction, but among its trickiest tasks is in how it legally defines bullying and harassment. In the end, it included the following language: "an incident must either substantially disrupt or interfere with the orderly operation of the school or the rights of other students," and "the creation of a hostile educational environment for the student by interfering with a student’s education or by severely or pervasively causing physical or emotional harm to the student."

Why the hesitation: Even with strong bipartisan support in the legislature, there were a number of concerns raised among schools, lobbyists and others. For instance, the law places new requirements on schools to train staff and put specific systems in place for addressing bullying complaints. Some worried that would bring additional costs, including stipends to those appointed to serve in newly required anti-bullying positions. A legislative staff analysis said as much: "Presumably, appointing such a staff member to serve as the anti-bullying specialist or on the school safety team would require additional compensation to be determined by the collective bargaining agreement." Still, the analysis called the potential pricetag "indeterminate."

In the background: The extent that schools also must now pay heed and potentially be liable for off-site bullying -- including in Internet and texting exchanges -- is hardly an issue even resolved in the courts. And some sponsors theorized that the loud support the measure received from the gay and lesbian community had made some conservatives, including maybe the governor, uncomfortable.

What's next: The State Board of Education and Department of Education will likely set code or regulations for how schools are meant to implement the law, and that could bring more discussion and debate on specific provisions.

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