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Judge’s Reversal of Bullying Ruling Upheld by State Education Chief

Cerf agrees that conflict between two students didn’t meet anti-bullying law’s criteria.

Two years after enactment of New Jersey’s strict anti-bullying law, state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf has for the first time reversed a district’s finding of bullying, saying the incident was simply a more-innocent conflict between two students.

In a decision handed down in late April and posted last week, Cerf found that the Pittsgrove school district’s charge against an eighth-grade student identified as C.H. ran counter to the new law. The student had been accused of bullying after a February 2012 incident in which he shoved a piece of crumpled paper down a classmate’s shirt.

In a case that had seen counter-charges of bullying and at least three different investigations, the Salem County school district said C.H. meant to antagonize the other student and was “disturbing the learning environment and causing emotional harm.”

Cerf upheld administrative law Judge W. Todd Miller’s ruling that while there was an ongoing conflict between the students, the incident did not amount to bullying or harassment as defined in the law.

“The conflict between these students did not contain the serious and aggravating elements necessary to a finding of bullying under (the anti-bullying law); and the factual record only supports a finding of ordinary student conflict rather than the more serious behavior of bullying,” read a synopsis of the decision.

The decision touched on what has becoming a dispute over where to draw the line between a fight or disagreement and an incidence of bullying.

The law defines bullying as a conflict based on characteristics such as appearance, race, or ethnicity, but schools have struggled with pinpointing such motives among what are sometimes young students.

“Shoving a piece paper down a student’s shirt is a common and immature prank, much like a child who puts ice or snow down someone’s shirt,” Miller wrote in his March ruling.

“It does not have the aggravating characteristics of malice or intent to significantly disgrace or harm (i.e. bullying), but remains unacceptable behavior. More to the point, however, is, as outlined below; this prank was motivated by the ongoing conflict between the students.”

Miller also noted that C.H. himself has accused the other student of bullying him, claims that were not found sufficient but which he said were not totally discounted.

“It is clear from the district’s own investigation that C.H. was on the receiving end of some antagonistic behavior that was initiated by either Bobby, other students or a combination of both,” he wrote. “There was an element of ‘mutuality’ even if C.H. was the more dominate actor.”

Still, it was the first time under the fledgling law that the commissioner had sided with a family appealing a bullying claim. Last winter, he rejected similar appeals in two separate cases in Tenafly and East Brunswick.

In one case, a sixth-grade student had called another “gay” and said he “danced like a girl.” The other case stemmed from an incident in which a fourth-grader student called out a classmate for having head lice.

As of the end of April, at least 16 cases have been appealed up to the commissioner, according to the state.

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