Anti-Bullying Law’s Sponsor Cites Success in Raising Awareness

John Mooney | October 4, 2012 | Education
Assemblywoman: Task force must now interpret numbers showing spike in reported incidents

The day after new data was released detailing the extent of bullying in New Jersey schools and educators’ responses to it, the chief sponsor of the new NJ Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights said the law is succeeding in its core aim.

State Assemblywoman Valerie Huttle (D-Bergen) said yesterday that the numbers released by the state Department of Education showing a big spike in reported incidents indicated the law was finally identifying the scope of the problem in schools.

“The law is working, and now we see it in the number of incidents reported,” she said in an interview.

Statistics included in the state’s annual report on violence, vandalism and substance abuse, showed the number of reported incidents more than tripled last year in the first year of the law, to slightly above 12,000 cases overall – or on average of roughly five incidents per school.

More than 35,000 complaints were investigated overall, according to the state, based on data supplied by school districts.

But the assemblywoman added that more work needed to be done to dig behind the statistics.

“These are just numbers,” she said. “I want to know what these numbers mean, how these cases are being resolved. It seems everything is being reported at this point because everyone wants to follow the letter of the law, but I want to see what the real concerns are.”

A new state task force has met three times, with the aim of looking at the landmark law’s impact and determining what steps should be taken to address concerns that have arisen among schools.

Patricia Wright, chair of the panel and executive director of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, said the task force is just beginning work on a report due back to Gov. Chris Christie and the Legislature in January.

“I wasn’t surprised at the numbers, but we will look closely at them and put them with other information to try to make sense of all this,” Wright said. “I don’t think there is any doubt that (the law) has raised awareness of the issue, that is clear.”

For the last year, the new law has shaken up districts scrambling to address the rise in bullying complaints and investigations, as well the law’s new requirements for specific staffing and procedures.

Among the concerns has been the cost of implementing the law, one that some districts have claimed is an unfunded mandate. The state’s quasi-legal Council on Local Mandates concurred last spring, and ordered the state to provide at least some funding, leading to the $1 million grant program created this spring.

However, the average grants were tiny, and no new money was set aside this year in either Christie’s initial budget or the one he ultimately signed, other than funding for two additional training staff in the education department.

Huttle said yesterday she was still not convinced more money was needed, fearing that districts would use it as an excuse not to fulfill the mandate. But she hoped the task force would help address that as well, with Christie saying he would review the group’s findings before committing more money.

“They did get $1 million, and the governor said he’d revisit it,” Huttle said. “I think the law is working right now, and we’ll have to see what is needed.”

Huttle also said wide discrepancies between districts’ numbers needed to be explored to determine if they are lessons in the highs and lows or whether there were reporting problems.

For example, there was little correlation between enrollment and incidents, with large districts like Perth Amboy and Camden each reporting fewer than 40 incidents, while far smaller ones like Mount Olive and Deptford had well over 100. The highest in the state were Elizabeth and Woodbridge, each with 177 reported incidents – or about one a day.

“That does seem odd, and I wonder if they are all being reported as they should be,” Huttle said. “But I also realize this is the first year of the law, and these things will work themselves out.”

Not all were necessarily encouraged by the numbers, with the head of the superintendents association saying that the number of complaints investigated and not confirmed raised worries.

“There has got to be a concern when two-thirds of the cases are going though the motions,” said Richard Bozza, director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators. “That’s an awful lot of investigations that found nothing happened, or at least nothing serious.”

“I know this keeps getting referred to as the toughest law in the country, but I’m not sure it’s the smartest,” he said.