Anti-Bullying Report Recommends Greater Autonomy for School Officials

Task force advises that principals make the call as to whether incident qualifies as bullying, gives law positive review overall

A task force charged with looking at the benefits and challenges of New Jersey’s new anti-bullying law has published its first report, recommending that schools be allowed more discretion in identifying and investigating possible acts of bullying.

The unit was formed last spring on the heels of the 2011 passage of the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights (ABR), which imposed tough new requirements on schools to not just act on accusations of bullying but to resolve the issue within a set timeframe.

While school districts first said that the renewed attention to bullying was valuable, many administrators complained that the rules compelled them to move on every allegation, demanding significant time and effort on the part of staff.

As a result, several districts filed formal challenges against the new law as an unfunded state mandate, which led to the creation of the task force. The districts won the challenge in the state Council on Local Mandates, leading to a new $1 million grant program for them to tap into.

In appropriating the funds, the Christie administration and Legislature charged the task force to report back every six months to recommend (if needed) how to improve the law and its implementation.

The 67-page report filed on Monday — and not announced by either the Christie administration or the Legislature — seeks to smooth some rough edges while giving the statute a generally positive review.

The most significant recommendation turns on the definition of what constitutes harassment and bullying, a sometimes-subjective interpretation despite a plethora of legalistic definitions.

After conducting focus groups and surveys in different districts, the task force said the confusion over what distinguishes bullying from a simple conflict has left districts erring on the side of caution, to both protect students and their own liability.

But that approach also may have led to an overreaction, according to the task force, with districts launching full-blown investigations with every accusation.

According to the report, “It appeared that confusion over the [bullying] definition led to [nonbullying] behaviors being reported, thus requiring a definition

Rather than formulating that definition, however, the task force recommended that principals or their designees be given more leeway to make the initial call on a case-by-case basis, deciding if a bullying investigation should be launched or if the incident should be addressed by another part of the discipline code.

The primary sponsor of the legislation yesterday said she was pleased with the task force’s work and recommendations so far, saying that the law always intended for administrators to use their professional judgment.

“The greatest concern about the law has been around confusion in the definition,” said state Assemblywoman Valerie Huttle (D-Bergen). “But I always believed they should use common sense.”

“The task force didn’t recommend that the law itself be changed,” she continued, “but that there be some more discretion exercised in each case before launching an investigation.”

“I think it clarifies the law and a lot of what we intended in the first place,” Huttle said.

The other recommendations were more specific as to timelines for school boards to act on cases, as well as additional emphasis on the training of staff and others.

Nonetheless, the report overall gave a positive assessment of the law by heightening attention to bullying in schools.

“Collectively, focus group feedback, survey responses and [state] data revealed a positive response to the ABR, particularly related to respectful behavior and a positive school climate,” the report read.

What happens next is unclear. The report said the task force would continue its work and track the law for the next two years, issuing reports every six months.

The state Department of Education would also take the findings into consideration as it adopts and refines its regulations about school procedures. A spokeswoman for the department said yesterday that it had just received the report and would take it under review.