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New Jersey's Anti-Bullying Law: Benefit and Burden

Some school districts are voicing concerns about law's intractable timelines.

The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights is one of the most consequential laws for New Jersey public schools in years, though hardly the most flexible. That's led some state officials to look for ways to make the measure less of a burden on schools.

What changes, if any, will be suggested remains to be seen. But the law's supporters are standing firm that any modifications will need to come in administrative guidelines and not to the law itself.

"We're not revisiting the bill itself, or its intent," said state Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), one of the law's primary sponsors, who has been part of the early discussions.

The legislation enacted last spring -- considered by some as the toughest in a slew of anti-bullying laws sweeping the country -- requires that districts follow strict protocols to prevent, identify, and address complaints of harassment and bullying both in and outside school.

But as the law has seen its first tests, worries have been raised as to whether it is too inflexible and burdensome on districts. Fixed timeliness for reporting and investigating complaints have been among the issues, as well as demands for specific staff in each school and district.

One district has filed a formal challenge that the new law represents an unfunded mandate on schools, potentially forcing the state to provide thousands of dollars in additional funding to every district.

After two months, the concerns have been heard in Trenton. Acting education commissioner Chris Cerf last week spoke at the state's school boards and administrators convention about the law as an example of the kinds of requirements on schools that can prove a tricky balance.

"Yes, the intent is great and, yes, it speaks to a problem that we as citizens need to collectively address," Cerf told the group's meeting in Atlantic City. "But we also need to learn from actual execution to find ways to achieve noble ends while being less burdensome and more effective in what we do."

And quietly, the state Board of Education has taken up the call. Led by its vice president, Ilan Plawker, the first discussions have taken place to find ways to address the concerns about the guidelines issued by the department.

"The question is whether there is a way to make it more operational without changing its intent," Plawker said yesterday.

He said there were areas where, through guidelines, the requirements could be "toned down," giving districts more flexibility in meeting specific timeframes. "Just so not everything is so set in stone, where there can be some reasonable application to this," he said.

"We need to see where we can polish this," Plawker said. "Everywhere I go, I get asked what I can do. They have to know they have some freedom to exercise common sense."

But how to do that is not so simple, with the state Department of Education already issuing one set of widely criticized guidelines and now at work on another. Huttle, for one, puts the blame on the department for not having clearer regulations in place by the end of summer.

"These should have been issued the first day of school," Huttle said. "If that had been done, there would have been a lot less concerns."

She said in a vast majority of districts, the law has been well-received, and in those where there is an issue, she called it an "adjustment period." She said the law does set parameters of what is a simple conflict and what is continued harassment, and districts have some discretion.

"If you can resolve it as a teacher, you certainly don't need to write a report," she said. "But all that would be in the guidance."

However, Huttle said some tenets she is not bending on, including the required timelines for investigating what are valid complaints.

"Unfortunately, there has to be a timeframe," she said. "That is what the problem was in the past, that they weren't held to anything."

One of the prime backers of the law said the law has been forcefully and effectively put in place in a vast majority of schools. "And they are saving children's lives," said Steven Goldstein of Garden State Equality, the gay-rights organization that proved a potent force in the bill's passage.

"The very few districts with concerns are operating on a misinterpretation of the law, largely fed by a lack of guidance from the Department of Education," he said.

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