Christie Joins Deal to Save Anti-Bullying Law

John Mooney | March 8, 2012 | Education
But political compromise keeps "thorough and efficient" out of new bill

Credit: Governor's Office/Tim Larsen
From left, Sen. Diane Allen, gay rights activist Steven Goldstein, and Assemblywoman Valerie Huttle.
In its latest incarnation but one, New Jersey’s anti-bullying law — one of the toughest in the nation — was going to be part of the state’s constitutional responsibility to provide a “thorough and efficient” education.

But yesterday, state Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen) said that the phrase would not appear after all in the final version of the legislation, part of a political compromise that kept the law on the books and netted $1 million to help defray implementation costs at individual schools.

Also part of the package is a task force that will continue to review the law and its impact.

Huttle, the law’s sponsor in the lower house, joined Gov. Chris Christie and other legislators in the governor’s outer office to formally announce the agreement.

The story behind that deal is a circuitous one.

Essentially, the anti-bullying measure was slated to be struck from the statute within the month, following the January decision by the state’s Council on Local Mandates that ruled the law to be an unfunded mandate.

That decision stems from the fact that while the law spells out a series of specific procedures for investigations, staffing and training in every school, it is conspicuously silent on how these requirements would be paid for.

Facing a complaint from a tiny Warren County district and rising concerns from many others, the quasi-judicial mandates council agreed that the state had not funded the law, as required by the state constitution. It ruled that without funding or change in requirements, the law would no longer be in effect 60 days after the ruling, March 27.

At this point Huttle, other legislators, and advocates spent several weeks crafting a compromise, one that would address the requirements of the council and keep the law in place.

Included would be new money, as well as the task force. And notably, when Huttle filed the bill proposal with the state’s Office of Legislative Services on Monday, a lengthy preamble stated that the prevention of bullying and intimidation is a “substantive component of a thorough and efficient system of free public schools.”

Yesterday, Huttle said the phrase would be removed when the bill is officially filed today.

Christie agreed he did not want to see the law expire. “The law becoming invalidated was just unacceptable to me,” he said.

So $1 million would come out of general funds for a Bullying Prevention Fund to be made available to districts this year through a grant process. He would also back the task force to look at other potential changes and additional funding next year.

“We know that students have the best opportunity to learn when they are in an environment free of bullying and intimidation,” he said.

The governor did not specifically address the “through and efficient” clause, but he did say that he continues to have some unspecified concerns about the law as it now stands and would review them over time. The governor has never appeared to be a big fan of the law, barely announcing that he even signed it a year ago.

“I think it will probably need work, but we’ll have a better handle on it in a couple of years,” he said. “I have some concerns, but I don’t want to put that in the water.”

Huttle said afterward that the “thorough and efficient” language was a victim of political compromise. She had felt it would strengthen the law from future challenges, but didn’t want to jeopardize the whole law for it.

“All I wanted to do was remedy the bill with everybody agreeing there would be no changes to the legislation itself,” she said. “All we did was add some money.”

“One needs to do things to make it work,” she said. “I don’t want to be putting more obstacles in the way.”

Huttle said she was pleased that the agreement could be reached by the March 27 deadline. The bill is expected to be voted on March 15.

“We’re on track,” she said of the legislative schedule. “On March 15th, we’ll get it done.”

State Sen. Diane Allen (R-Burlington), a Republican sponsor who also attended the press conference, said removing the “thorough and efficient” clause was important to the final agreement.

“The governor feels and I agree that is not where we want to go,” she said afterward. “If we go down the through and efficient road, are we opening ourselves up to a million other things to be included.”

Steven Goldstein, director of Garden State Equality, the gay rights group that campaigned hard for the anti-bullying measure, said his main goal was for the law to survive.

“The best fix of all wound up being money, and we got it,” Goldstein said. “I’m thrilled.”