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Anti-Bullying Regulations Caught Up in Red Tape Review

Christie's drive to ease rules -- and save money -- goes up against a popular law.

Gov. Chris Christie on Monday announced the latest review of state regulations for public schools, creating a red tape task force to determine if those rules are causing unintended distress and racking up unintended costs.

Yesterday, before the members of the task force were even named, the state’s new anti-bullying law proved an early test for the initiative.

The new law is under consideration by the state Board of Education, the agency most responsible for these regulations. One of the board's jobs is to create administrative code that translates legislation into the precise regulations schools must follow and the requirements they must meet. For the anti-bullying law, signed by Christie in January, that code will define the procedures that districts must follow to address bullying accusations and train staff, among numerous other requirements.

But for all the bipartisan support the law received, the new mandates are already proving to be a strain and a potential financial stretch for many districts, even before the regulations are enacted.

And while code adoption is arcane work, the anti-bullying procedures proved an easy target for the perennial debate as to whether the state has put too many rules in schools, to the detriment -- and cost -- of the education they are charged with providing.

"It seems to me part of the problem are the costs are out of control," said Andrew Mulvihill, a board member from Andover and one of four new Christie appointees who are already making their mark. "I’m just wondering if there is some way for some balance here"

“Is this just more of the same?” he asked later, repeating his question out of frustration.

Red Tape Resolution

Before yesterday's meeting, the state board was presented with a draft resolution that would slow down a slew of new code adoptions -- including the anti-bullying procedures -- until the task force’s work is done.

The draft resolution would effectively extend the imminent expiration of several existing regulations, providing more time to change them through a "comprehensive review of the current policies pertaining to these regulations."

The board did not move on the draft yesterday, since it wasn’t on the agenda and would have violated Sunshine Law requirements for at least 48 hours notice, members said. But the draft was dated April 8, and board president Arcelio Aponte did not rule out a conference call Friday.

"We’re dotting our i's and crossing our t's," Aponte said afterward. "I think it makes some sense, and most board members are supportive of it. But we had this issue with the Sunshine Law."

Still, whether to slow or revisit regulations is sensitive subject, and not just as it pertains to the anti-bullying measure. It could also affect regulations for special education, school facilities and adult and career education, all up for re-adoption as well.

But the anti-bullying measure has proved an apt example of the tough debates ahead as the task force seeks to streamline what’s required of schools. The law is among the most extensive in the country, putting in place detailed procedures for monitoring and reporting bullying, including someone in every building to serve as the point person for such claims.

No Additional Funds

Yet for all the presumed merits to making schools more responsive to bullying dangers, the law does not provide additional funding for implementation, maintaining the costs can be absorbed with additional personnel and funds. That has been a stretch for some districts, and state officials said they were keeping an eye on whether additional costs would be incurred.

“We’ll have to see what the districts say, to see if they have the people in place or need to add as we move forward,” said Barbara Gantwerk, assistant commissioner for student services and who’s office oversees this code. “It remains to be seen.”

Yesterday’s proposed regulations were only in the discussion stage, and changes can still be made once it moves to formal proposal.

Some board members said it wasn’t so much a problem of the regulations that the state Board promulgates, as what comes from down the street at the Statehouse. Board member Ronald Butcher called it a problem "not of over-regulating, but over-legislating.”

Others said the board should make the public case. "I would posit this board has an opportunity to take a stand against over-regulation and over-legislating," added Claire Chamberlain Eckert, another new appointee, from Bernardsville. "I think we can push back, and I think the time is now."

Still for every regulation there is often a constituency, and others were careful not to make this just about the anti-bullying rules, when emotions have run so high to the cause. Part of the impetus behind the law was the suicide of a Rutgers student last year who was allegedly harassed over the Internet by some classmates.

"This is probably one law or set of regulations that needs to be there," said member Edithe Fulton. "There are probably others that don’t need to be, but I don’t think we want to be cutting corners when it comes to the safety of our school children."

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