Fine Print: Anti-Bullying Task Force Recommends Changes in the Way Law is Enforced

Panel’s first annual report suggests revising the definition of bullying and taking a different approach to investigations

What it is: The report is the first of three annual reports to come out of the seven-member committee of educators and experts appointed by the governor and the Legislature last year. The committee was charged with monitoring implementation of the landmark law in the schools and recommend changes in code or statute. The report suggested several code changes, most of them clarifying how schools define bullying incidents and the specifics of how to respond to them.

What it means: The report is exhaustive in its scope, tapping into interviews and surveys of educators and others to determine how the 2011 law is playing out in schools. The state’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights (ABS) has some of the toughest requirements in the country, and the report recommends several changes that may ease what some have said are overly restrictive rules. Whether the changes are adopted or address all the concerns remains uncertain.

All about power: Maybe the most significant recommendation centers on how bullying is defined in the first place. The law currently describes bullying as an incident of verbal, physical or online threat or harassment that targets a child with a focus on a specific distinguishing characteristic.

The task force recommends adding language that would also cite the existence of a power difference, perceived or real, between the students. The task force said that the so-called “power differential” is critical is distinguishing a normal conflict between students from one in which one student is using that power to harass another student.

Quote: “The balance of power is key,” said Patricia Wright, chairwoman of the task force and executive director of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association. “Once you see the power differential, that’s the hallmark of bullying.”

Principal discretion: The panel also recommends some language in regulations that would allow a principal clearer discretion in launching an investigation once an accusation is made. Some educators have said they have little choice but to launch a full investigation once an accusation comes to them; the proposed new language would specifically allow school principals to weigh whether an accusation, if confirmed, fits the definition of bullying or should be handled through a school’s code of conduct.

“I think that has been happening naturally now,” Wright said, “but I think this makes it clearer.”

Staffing: One of the more significant pieces of the law requires every school to appoint an “anti-bullying specialist” to investigate accusations. Those jobs have often fallen to guidance counselors. Concerns have been raised that both helping students and investigating them can be a conflict of interests. The task force recommends language that would give schools the explicit option of appointing staff members other than counselors to investigate bullying charges, as long as the staff member has proper training.

Questions of funding: The task force calls for increasing funding for implementation of the law, both through state funding and other sources. The state this year and last year allotted $1 million for grants to districts, with money distributed based on their funding requests. Wright said the task force did not set a precise cost, but thought $1 million a year was not enough to cover costs.

Sponsor reaction: State Assemblyman Valerie Vainieri Huttle (D-Bergen), who was the prime sponsor of the law in the Assembly, said yesterday that she supported many of the recommended changes, which she described as “common sense.”

“This is helpful, basically giving us some clarification,” she said. “With such an intense piece of legislation, implementation needs to have this continuous monitoring in its first years, and I think this is not so much tweaking the law as clarifying it.”

What’s next: The state Department of Education accepted the report yesterday and posted it on its website. A spokesman said the department will review the recommendations and decide on what actions to take next. Virtually all of the recommendations would need to be made through administrative code adopted by the State Board of Education.