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Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights: Day 1

New Jersey schools have a tough new anti-bullying policy, but all the pieces aren't in place on the first day of classes.

Even before his lone school opened for the new year, Bedminster superintendent Andrew Rinko was dealing with the state's pioneering anti-bullying law.

Rinko said the incident arose over the summer, when one student was allegedly harassed by three others in a public setting outside the school. That led to investigations and reports, and ultimately a finding that cleared the three students, he said.

Then came the "retaliatory" accusation, as Rinko called it, that the initial victim had bullied others as well, setting off another round.

"In the past, I would have said that this is a matter for the parents and maybe suggest they turn it over to the police," he said.

Not any more.

Bullying in schools is nothing new, of course, but what changed is last winter's passage of the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, a package of requirements that schools not only have policies against bullying but also that they implement standardized and strict practices on how to deal with incidents.

Those witnessing or being told of an incident must report it immediately. Investigations must start within two days, and they must be completed in 10. Every school must have a point person for addressing bullying accusations, and every teacher, aide and staff member must have training as to exactly what bullying is.

And for the first time, educators are being held accountable for what happens outside their buildings -- on weekends, in other locations, even online or in text messages -- if it can be found to come back and affect what happens in their schools.

That was the line for Bedminster officials to consider this summer, with their single pre-K-8th-grade school, and indeed they erred on the side of caution, Rinko said, calling families together and going through the necessary steps.

Additional Paperwork

"The actual investigation probably took nine hours of reporting, paperwork and compliance," Rinko said.

As president of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, Rinko stressed that the intent of the law is sound and applauds any efforts to ease what he agrees is a problem in many schools, and not just New Jersey. The suicide of a Rutgers student last year after being allegedly harassed by his roommate for being gay -- the public impetus behind the law --is plenty of proof to the stakes, he agreed.

"Of course, we don't want anyone hurt or taunted," he said. "But we also want some reasonableness."

That has been the crux of the matter for many schools as they move from the political talk and headlines to actual implementation.

A Bully-Free Culture

For the law's supporters and sponsors, however, it was a day of celebration.

Two of the lead sponsors, state Sen. Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex) and Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), held a press conference at Fort Lee High School yesterday morning to applaud what they said was the start of a "bully-free culture."

"There was a time when bullying was called a right of passage or child's play," said Huttle. "Since the advent of social media, texting and instant messaging, this notion is outdated. Bullying doesn't stop at 3 p.m. In many instances, it can result in 'round-the-clock harassment that has, in some cases, caused horrific and even deadly consequences.

"The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights is a bold, 21st century approach to open students' eyes to the realities of bullying and move from a culture that once turned a blind eye to this behavior to one that no longer tolerates it," she continued.

Still, she was among those who also acknowledged the difficulties and challenges in implementing the law, and released a letter sent to the state's acting education commissioner, Chris Cerf, calling for further guidelines and regulations to assist schools.

"Unfortunately, the result is that many schools may not be able to adequately comply once the academic year begins," read the September 2 letter.

State officials stressed that guidelines had been released back in April in the form of a lengthy memo, including a checklist of the different steps required for every school and district. The state is also conducting training sessions around New Jersey for representatives from every district, starting next week. A memo reminding districts of those sessions went out yesterday.

Officials said they had met with Huttle and all parties agreed that the expectation was for the law to be fully implemented during the school year, not necessarily at the start of it.

"There is more guidance to come, probably in October," said Justin Barra, the department's communications director. "As you can imagine, this is going to be ongoing, and there will be a lot more."

Still, it didn't go over well with some advocates, who saw the first day as an important opportunity.

"Talk to school districts, school administrators and teachers across the state, and you'll hear them clamoring for guidelines today," said Steve Goldstein, chairman of Garden State Equality, an advocacy group that helped lead the campaign for the law.

"Schools cannot and should not settle for less," he added. The department itself seems to acknowledge this, and indicated that more is to come -- but more did not come by today, the first day of the school year."

Rinko, the Bedminster superintendent, didn't put the blame on the Department of Education and said he looked forward to further guidelines to help address "unanswered questions." And he said the training will be useful, something that various groups have already begun. A training DVD is also available.

And while Rinko said he wished the legislature had thought through some of these issues when writing the law in the first place, he also preferred to hold out hope.

"Maybe we'll have the outcome that everyone wants, and we'll have a new age of civility," he said.

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