Explainer: Tough Anti-Bullying Law Guides Schools in Dealing with Harassment

Legislation enacted after Rutgers student’s suicide later spurred probe of violent hazing involving Sayerville football team

New Jersey’s anti-bullying law, one of the toughest in the country, continues to be the subject of intense debate over whether it is too strong — or not strong enough.

A state task force charged with monitoring the law issued its final report this week, offering a series of recommendations, and the State Board of Education is slated this month to take up some changes in the regulations that dictate the law’s implementation.

In addition, questions have arisen over whether the state should do more to support districts, especially in terms of funding.

Here’s a look at what the law mandates, how it came to be, and what has happened since.

What it is: The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act passed the Legislature with bipartisan support in 2010 and was signed into law in early 2011. It put in place new requirements for schools to both pursue and prevent harassment, intimidation and bullying (HIB) involving both students and adults. The law sets strict procedures for how to investigate reported incidents. It also provides new guidance on setting up programs to raise awareness of the problem and to build a positive and supportive climate in schools.

What it means: The law hasn’t just changed the rules. Some say it is helping to change the culture of how students and staff deal with incidents of bullying. And it doesn’t just apply to incidents in schools; it also set the first parameters for dealing with such acts outside of school — and online — that also can disrupt a child’s education.

The law as sequel: The 2011 law actually is an amendment of a 2002 legislation that was among the nation’s first laws requiring schools to have anti-bullying policies and procedures. A series of court cases — with the help of political advocacy — pushed state legislators to further amend the law to set strict requirements for enforcing those policies.

An extra push: Passage of the bill came in the aftermath of the suicide of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge after his roommate videotaped and broadcast online Clementi’s intimate encounter with another student. The case brought national attention to the issue of cyber-harassment and added political fuel to the drive to pass the law, with gay rights groups providing especially strong advocacy.

An ironic twist: The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights only requires colleges and universities to set policies for addressing bullying incidents, but does not hold them to the same standards as it does K-12 districts. Repeated calls by advocates for colleges to follow the same policies have yet to be heeded.

Another twist: Four years after it was enacted, the law was directly responsible for touching off the investigation that led to revelations of the notorious hazing scandal involving Sayreville High School’s football team, according to the district’s superintendent who conducted the investigation. Since then, state officials and education groups have moved to specifically include hazing — both sports and non-sports related — among the categories covered by the law.

Initial surge and since: The first full year of the law saw a massive surge in cases — more than 35,000 reported incidents and 12,000 confirmed incidents. But the numbers have since settled down as awareness has heightened and schools and administrators have been more cautious in their methods and with how they define bullying. The state’s latest Violence, Vandalism and Substance Abuse Report — the annual tabulation of school discipline statistics — listed 6,214 confirmed incidents of bullying in the 2014-2015 school year.

Reluctant reporting: Much like the reporting of violent incidents as a whole, there also may be a hesitation by school districts — and families – to draw attention by reporting incidents in the first place. The state has long raised concerns about under-reporting of incidents of violence, and has sought stricter and stricter requirements for school districts.

The specifics: The law sets timelines and lists specific steps that schools must take in investigating and following up on claims of bullying. Among them:

  • Every school must appoint an anti-bullying specialist who handles investigations of HIB incidents.
  • Acts or accusations of HIB must be reported to the school principal the same day, and any school employee involved must file a written report within two days.
  • The principal must inform the parents of the incident.
  • The principal must initiate an investigation within a day of the written report, with the investigation conducted by the appointed specialist.
  • The investigation must be completed within 10 days, and passed on to the school superintendent within two days of completion. The superintendent may decide on intervention, counseling or other services or actions.
  • The local Board of Education must be informed of the decision at its next meeting, and ultimately must sign off on the decision.
  • Parents are provided a written record of the decision, and may appeal to the Board of Education, with the appeal heard in executive session. The parents may further appeal the board’s decision to the state education commissioner.

Prevention, too: The law requires every school to create “safety teams” that examine school climate and help organize activities and other programs to foster respectful behavior. The law also establishes a “Week of Respect” in the first full week of every October as a way to highlight those programs. Such programs have seen a big surge in their own right, with more than 20,000 held last year, according to the state.

Public accountability: The state sets ratings for schools based on how their districts address bullying in schools. In a largely self-reported system, 84 percent of schools received ratings that they had met or exceeded all of the core requirements.

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