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School Districts to Assess How Strong a Start They've Made With Anti-Bullying

New guidelines and monitoring process will ultimately grade schools on compliance.

While many New Jerseyans are transfixed by the latest case of bullying at Rutgers University, public schools across the state are being asked to assess how well they've done implementing the new Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights (ABR).

Sadly, that landmark legislation was enacted partly in response to another bullying incident at Rutgers: The suicide of Tyler Clementi, who killed himself after his roommate posted a video online of Clementi's intimate encounter with another man.

In order to gauge their success putting ABR in place, schools will work with a monitoring process to evaluate all the facets of the legislation, from the prevention programs for students to the staffing in the schools to the actual numbers of incidents of bullying -- proven and otherwise.

The process is just getting underway. The state Department of Education alerted districts last month about some of the measures that will be used and ratings ultimately derived.

At first, the districts will perform a self-evaluation of their progress, with the state serving more as a check and balance, according to the guidelines.

Each school will receive a rating from “does not meet the requirements” to “exceeds the requirements.” The ratings will be determined by next fall, at which time they will be made public.

“The rubric should serve not only as a compliance tool, but as a means of educating school staff on best practices for implementing the ABR and as a mechanism to aid them in assessing and improving their ABR programs,” wrote state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf in the guidelines.

For most districts, ABR is still a work in progress. Many have said that the new rules -- which establish strict procedures and timelines for investigating claims of bullying -- have posed new challenges.

And with bullying allegations spiking significantly under the new law, the numbers of cases that could potentially be attached to the ratings are causing some concern for many districts.

Joseph Ricca, the superintendent of East Hanover Township school district, serves on the state's anti-bullying task force and said he hears questions all the time from colleagues.

Although the task force was not involved in the new guidelines, Ricca said the grading system and its required reviews were always foreseen since the law’s passage. The implications, he adds, are just now starting to dawn on districts.

Still, from his perspective, Ricca said the process should prove a powerful vehicle for districts.

“It will really allow districts to sit down and really talk about how they are doing, and even more importantly, have a conversation about the climate and culture of their schools and ways they can improve it,” he said yesterday.

“To me, that’s more important than identifying the numbers of investigations and things like that,” he said.

The state’s process seeks to take all these issues into consideration, outlining the various areas of the law that each school must show it has met. It adds that it will then match up those findings with its own data and monitoring of the district and not allow a district to take credit for measures that the state has found deficient.

“Schools are not permitted to assign a rating of ‘meets all requirements’ or ‘exceeds the requirements’ for any indicator that has been identified as noncompliant or that is unresolved as a result of an investigation by the NJDOE,” the guidelines read. “The NJDOE reserves the right to adjust the selected rating for any indicator, if the rating is inconsistent with data or information available to the NJDOE,” according to the guidelines.

Ricca isn’t worried that districts will try to game the ratings to their benefit.

“There has to be a level of trust in the professionalism on the part of those who run school districts,” he said.

Besides, districts will also be required to publicize their findings, including announcing them at a public meeting and including a post of their final grade on their websites.

“Hopefully out of all this, we will have an honest conversation,” Ricca said.

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