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Explainer: Impact of Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Becoming Evident in Schools

New statistics show legislation has made a difference – but challenges remain

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What it is

The Anti-bullying Bill of Rights Act was enacted in 2010 and signed into law in 2011 with bipartisan support. It puts in place new requirements for schools to both pursue and prevent harassment, bullying and intimidation involving both students and adults. The law sets strict procedures for how to investigate reported incidents. It also provides new guidance on providing programs to raise awareness of the problem.

What it means

The law hasn’t just changed the rules. Some say it is helping to change the culture of how students and staff deal with incidents of bullying. And it doesn’t just apply to incidents in schools; it also sets the first parameters for dealing with such acts outside of school – and online – that also can disrupt a child’s education.

The law as sequel

The 2011 law actually is an amendment to 2002 legislation that was among the nation’s first laws requiring schools to have anti-bullying policies and procedures. A series of court cases – with the help of political advocacy – pushed state legislators to further amend the law to set strict requirements for enforcing those policies.

An extra push

Final passage of the bill came in the aftermath of the suicide of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who jumped to his death after his roommate videotaped online Clementi’s intimate encounter with another student. The case brought national attention in particular to the issue of cyber-harassment and added political fuel to the drive to pass the law, with gay rights groups providing especially strong advocacy.

An ironic twist

The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights only requires colleges and universities to set policies for addressing bullying incidents, but does not hold them to the same standards as it does K-12 districts.

The latest stats

The state’s latest Violence, Vandalism and Substance Abuse Report – the annual tabulation of school discipline statistics –listed 21,934 reported incidents of bullying in schools in 2012-13. That was a sharp drop from the prior year’s 35,500 —incidents, a decline that was attributed to growing awareness of the issue itself but also the methodology for reporting the incidents.

A message from the sponsor

“These numbers show that the law is working,” said state Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), the law’s prime sponsor in the Assembly. “The culture and climate of schools are changing. Students know they are accountable now and I think that is making a difference.

“School districts have an obligation to report what is happening in their schools,” she continued. “I hope that these numbers reflect an actual decrease in bullying coupled with a better understanding of what constitutes ‘HIB’ and age-appropriate conflict.”

Reluctant reporting

Much like the reporting of violent incidents as a whole, there also may be a hesitation by school districts – and families – to draw attention by reporting incidents in the first place. The state has long raised concerns about under-reporting of incidents of violence and has sought stricter and stricter requirements for school districts.

The specifics

The law sets specific timelines and specific steps that school must take in investigating and following up on claims. Among them are the following: + Every school must appoint a anti-bullying specialist who handles investigations of HIB incidents. + Acts or accusations of HIB must be reported to the school principal the same day, and any school employee involved must file a written report within two days. + The principal must inform the parents of the incident. + The principal must initiate the investigation within a day of the written report, with the investigation conducted by the appointed specialist. + The investigation must be completed within 10 days, and passed to the school superintendent within two days of completion. The superintendent may decide on intervention, counseling or other services or actions. +The local Board of Education must be apprised of the decision at its next meeting, and ultimately sign off on the decision. + Parents are provided a written record of the decision, and may appeal to the board of education, with the appeal heard in executive session. The parents may further appeal the decision to the state education commissioner.

Prevention, too

The law sets out specific requirements for every school to create “safety teams” that examine school climate and help organize activities and other programs to foster respectful behavior. The law also establishes a “Week of Respect” in the first full week of every October as a way to highlight those programs.

Still to come

The stakes may only grow as the state under the law is required to set ratings for every district on how it addresses bullying in schools. The state Department of Education has yet to release those grades, nor set a date for their release.

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