It speaks both to the state’s new anti-bullying law and to the reactions of many school districts to it, that Piscataway’s anti-bullying coordinator is also its school board attorney.
David Rubin has been the board’s attorney for decades. Who better to oversee implementation of a new law than someone who knows all about legal rights and liability?
So when the state released this month its long-awaited guidelines for dealing with the landmark but contentious law, the Metuchen attorney was quick to look for the legal details as to what defines bullying and spells out the district’s responsibilities.
But while the new guidelines may be some improvement, Rubin also knows it will likely be left to the courts to make the final calls.
“It’s not going to be until some appellate court lays down the real standards to follow,” Rubin said. “And that’s going to be years.”
Piscataway schools have conducted nearly 100 formal investigations of alleged bullying since New Jersey’s anti-bullying law went into effect this fall, Rubin said.
The Middlesex County district is an example of the kind of sweeping change that the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights has brought to schools in three short months, with many administrators saying its implementation has become perhaps the fastest-growing part of their jobs.
But no more so than for school attorneys, who ultimately play the point person for cases as they make way to the local school board for resolution.
It’s daunting for those like Rubin, who said he sees different interpretations of the law in virtually every district he works with. In all, he represents about eight districts and has worked with dozens more.
“There remain a lot of gray areas that are being interpreted very differently by different districts, from the definition of bullying to procedures for investigating to the role of the board of education,” he said.
As the cases begin to make their way through the legal process, Rubin said it’s a matter of “educated guesses” without clear guidance from the state. The latest guidelines were released last week as part of the annual Violence and Vandalism Report for each district, a report that found bullying incidents through last year continued to rise in number.
“The law has created all different courses of action in terms of appealing to the state, to the courts, or the Office of Civil Rights,” Rubin said. “Until these starting getting into the courts, we’re all trying to thread a moving needle in the dark.”
So far, he said he has seen a handful of cases in his districts where families have asked for appeals before the local school board. After that is an appeal to the state’s education commissioner, followed by the appellate courts.
So far, no challenges have yet come to the commissioner, said a state education department spokesman, although there have been inquiries.
“We haven’t received any formal appeals, but we have received inquiries from parents and others about the process to appeal,” said Justin Barra, the department’s communications director.