School Districts Oppose Anti-Bullying Law as an Unfunded Mandate

John Mooney | January 12, 2012 | Education
Rutgers' coalition of concerned students joins with state to oppose challenge

A small Warren County school district’s legal challenge to the state’s controversial anti-bullying law – or at least the cost of it – has drawn supporters and opponents to its argument, including a notable group of Rutgers students who take a “special interest” in the case.

Allamuchy’s challenge before the state’s Council on Local Mandates argues that the anti-bullying law enacted last year has amounted to an unfunded and therefore unconstitutional mandate, given all its requirements for training staff and investigating and addressing complaints.

The little-known council, established in 1996 to hear local complaints about unfunded mandates, is to hear arguments on January 27 in Trenton. Its decision is binding, with no avenue for appeal.

As expected, a few other school districts — including Ridgewood — have joined the case in making the arguments that the law has become an administrative burden.

But maybe more noteworthy are some of those joining the state in its defense, including students in the gay and lesbian coalition at Rutgers Law School.

Rutgers is closely linked to the law, since the suicide last year of a gay Rutgers undergraduate after allegedly being harassed by his roommate proved a big impetus in having the statute enacted.

Speaking for the school’s lesbian and gay coalition, its president Iris Bromberg in a legal filing cited the suicide and said the group “has a special interest in maintaining and safeguarding the rights of students to access and interact with the education system in a safe and respectful environment.”

In no uncertain terms, she said her members who attended New Jersey public schools “are aware of the problems of bullying in our schools.”

The students’ argument for the law’s constitutionality is the same as the state’s, contending that the various requirements can be met with existing resources and any training should be conducted to protect students’ constitutional rights against discrimination.

Rutgers Law School dean Ronald Chen said it is not typical for his students to enter into a case like this one, but it should only help the state’s argument in pressing district’s responsibilities.

“I thought it would be good for the council to see and hear from people actually affected by this,” Chen said.

How germane they will be is yet to be seen, but their involvement may draw even more attention to the often quiet council that even its chairman concedes most people “don’t even know exists.”

“A case like this, it seems natural it would attract a lot of attention,” said chairman John Sweeney, a former Burlington County judge.

He said the arguments on January 27 would likely last a couple of hours, after which the council may immediately decide in a summary judgment or request additional testimony and argument.

“This could potentially be the end of it,” Sweeney said. “Either way, they will have our full attention.”

The case is also drawing considerable attention from school districts and their administrators, who wonder if it could lead to changes in the law or at least some additional resources in implementing it.

In the districts, the complaint hasn’t been so much over the intent of the law, but the array of responses required for every potential incident. Some officials contend it has taken away the more nuanced approaches that they say are more effective.

Ridgewood’s board of education had considered filing the challenge itself, but Allamuchy beat them to it, said superintendent Daniel Fishbein. River Vale schools have also filed in support of the Allamuchy challenge.

“It is costing us a lot of time and a lot of money to do the necessary training, and costing us the opportunity to do the things we had done in the past that were successful,” Fishbein said.

In Ridgewood, where Fishbein estimated there are about two or three cases a week, the superintendent said it has created a kind of culture of investigation in the schools.

“It’s upsetting to parents, it’s upsetting to kids, and has really broken down what we have been doing,” he said.