By the Numbers: NJ Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights

John Mooney | October 3, 2012 | Education
First data on new law shows tripling of confirmed incidents, with biggest problem in middle schools

It’s no secret that New Jersey’s landmark anti-bullying law has had a big impact on schools.

Now, in some of the first statewide numbers since the law was enacted, some details are emerging as to the exact extent of that impact.

The overall numbers are striking, to be sure.

According to statistics released yesterday by the state Department of Education, the number of confirmed incidents of harassment, intimidation and bullying (HIB) reported by districts more than tripled last year to more 12,024 cases, up from about 3,400 in 2010-11.

Incidents of HIB made up nearly half of all incidents of violence, vandalism and substance abuse reported by the state in its annual report to the public. And, as big a number as that is, those are just the confirmed cases, with more than 35,000 complaints filed overall.

Given the scope of the new law and the attention it has drawn, direct comparisons to previous years are tricky, and state officials said the new statistics will be the baseline for comparing future years. They also conceded that there could be some isolated reporting errors in the first year. The data is entirely reported by districts themselves.

Nonetheless, a big increase in HIB cases comes as no surprise to either educators or state officials, who have spoken extensively for the last year about the impact of the law on schools’ daily operations.

Enacted in 2011, the law for the first time requires districts to follow strict protocols in reporting and investigating all cases of possible bullying. It is considered among the toughest in the country, and advocates have said it finally holds schools and students accountable for what many agree is a pervasive problem.

But the law has been subject to legal challenges over the costs of implementing it, and a new task force appointed by Gov. Chris Christie and legislative leaders has already been convened to review its impact.

The task force will have plenty to start with in this report.

For instance, the number of confirmed cases is just a fraction of those alleged or suspected, reflecting the heavy workload that schools have faced. According to the report, the 12,000 confirmed incidents stemmed from a total of more than 35,500 complaints being filed and investigated by schools – on average more than 10 per school in the state.

In addition, more than half of all HIB incidents were reported to have involved students in grades 5-8, even while those grades represent less than a third of the overall enrollment.

More than 32,000 disciplinary actions resulted from those incidents, more than half of them involving student or parent conferences. One-fifth led to counseling for students.

A main tenet – and concern — of the law has been its tight timelines, but schools reported that by and large they met at least some of them. One requirement is an initial finding within 10 days of a report, and districts reported meeting the deadline in more than 90 percent of the cases.

However, local school boards are also required to sign off on all HIB investigations, and the state reported that only about half of the incidents listed received the local board’s approval. State officials said the discrepancy may be due to reporting errors or districts still adjusting to the new rules.

The nature of the reported incidents also proved telling. A vast majority of the incidents were verbal (78 percent), followed by physical actions (19 percent) and those involving a gesture (15 percent).

One controversial provision included in the new law is its requirements for reporting and investigating harassment and bullying online or through other electronic means, even if off campus. Such cases ended up being about 1,390 of the cases last year, or 12 percent of the total.

Of the 12,000 incidents overall, more than 60 percent related to an individual’s “distinguishing characteristic” other than race, ethnicity, disability or sexual orientation – typically defined as physical characteristics such as weight. Well behind were cases involving a student’s sexual orientation (11 percent) or race or ethnicity.

The report also listed districts’ reports on required training and other programs aimed at teachers and students. Districts reported more than 11,400 training events for staff in the school year, and another 8,700 programs or other initiatives for students.

“Awareness is a necessary first step to taking actions to create safer learning environments for our students,” said state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf in the announcement. “We must remain vigilant in our efforts to work towards better identification and reporting from our schools and districts in order to provide the most accurate information to the public and inform our programmatic and policy decisions.”