Brouhaha Brews Over Proposed Change in Anti-Bullying Code

John Mooney | July 19, 2013 | Education
Advocates contend deleted wording dilutes requirements enacted for NJ school districts in 2011

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The wording is buried deep in the Christie administration’s latest regulatory changes for public schools, a notation calling for removal of a single sentence from current regulations referring to certain required services and “corrective actions.”

But the words in question have to do with anti-bullying measures and the responsibilities school districts have to address the problem.

Needless to say, the change has touched off a bit of a tempest.

Three of the main sponsors of the state’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights (ABR) -– two Democrats and a Republican -– this week wrote to state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf objecting to the change, saying it would all but gut the spirit of the historic law.

Enacted in 2011, the anti-bullying measure put in place strict procedures and requirements for schools to combat harassment, intimidation and bullying (HIB).

“While we appreciate the department’s effort to reduce ‘red tape’ and increase flexibility, removing a school district’s minimum response from the administrative code would decrease protections currently afforded students,” read the letter signed by Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen) and Sens. Diane Allen (R-Burlington) and Barbara Buono (D-Middlesex), the gubernatorial candidate.

“We sponsored the ABR to increase, not decrease, protections and assistance for all students affected by HIB,” the letter to Cerf continued. “Implementing the proposed change would set New Jersey back in combating HIB, an effort for which you have shown great support.”

The sponsors also asked Cerf to postpone any other changes to code related to anti-bullying efforts until a state task force reviewing the law’s implementation could make its own recommendations.

The language proposed for deletion is included in an expansive proposal to ease requirements for schools in dealing with student support and other mostly noninstructional services.

In the section about anti-bullying efforts, the current code speaks to the programs and services that districts must offer in response to bullying incidents, both to the individual victims and to address any larger “systemic problems.”

On page 184 of the 208-page document, the language reads: “The response at a minimum shall include support for victims of harassment, intimidation or bullying, and corrective actions of documented systemic problems related to harassment, intimidation and bullying.”

In the department’s written introduction to the code changes, submitted to the state Board of Education, it says that language was to be removed because the new law does not set such minimum requirements for “support of victims” or “corrective actions for systemic problems.”

Yesterday, state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf tried to downplay any disagreement, saying he would meet with the legislators to hear their objections.

“We take these concerns seriously,” Cerf said.

“Our only intention is to fully and faithfully implement the intent of the law,” he said.

The legislators, in their letter, called the department’s written reasoning “grossly inconsistent with both the intent and the language of the law.”

They have found some vocal supporters, including Garden State Equality, the gay rights organization that proved to be a powerful player in the final crafting and passage of the law.

Shannon Cuttle, managing director of the organization’s anti-bullying programs, said yesterday that the language at issue is critical in requiring districts to set up frameworks for dealing with bullying problems both individually and throughout a school.

“Those frameworks can only be achieved if that language stays in place in requiring districts create an inclusive and safe school environment,” Cuttle said yesterday.

Luanne Peterpaul, a member of the organization’s board of governors who worked on the bill, said she was curious about why that specific language would be singled out.

“It underscores what is the whole spirit of the law, the climate and culture of the school,” she said.

The debate comes as the law moves into its third full school year, with schools beginning to settle in how to comply with its requirements.

The first year was a tumultuous one, with a rapid rise in reported incidents — more than 35,000 statewide.

Figures are not yet available for the past year, but school officials continued to cite worries and confusion over definitions in the law and their own capacity to respond to and investigate each reported incident.

To help districts, the state Legislature this year added $1 million to the state budget for fiscal 2014, the first time a specific line item related to the anti-bullying law was included in the budget.

An appropriation of $1 million was made last year, but it was separate from the budget and was made only in response to a ruling that the state needed to provide at least some funding for the new mandate.

The use of the fiscal 2014 money has yet to be determined, but Cerf said it was likely it would be made available to districts in grants, just like the original $1 million.

Garden State Equality representatives testified before the Legislature asking for additional funding to school districts, and Cuttle yesterday said the $1 million was a start.

“We’d like to see that increase, but we are very pleased that it now has a line item in the budget,” Cuttle said.