When districts four years ago started pushing back about the state’s new anti-bullying law, Gov. Chris Christie responded by offering a little money and turning to what has become one of his favorite answers in these cases: a task force.
Yesterday, that task force issued its fourth and final report with a series of recommendations — old and new — both for more state support for schools and for a continued fine-tuning of the law’s implementation.
For instance, it repeated recommendations from its last interim report in 2014 that regulations be amended to provide clearer lines for principals to decide whether to investigate cases, as well as clearer definitions of what bullying is in the first place.
Elsewhere, it called for more financial support for districts implementing the law, both in carrying out investigations and in paying for programs to promote greater awareness and a positive climate in schools.
Overall, the task force said significant progress had been made since the law’s passage in 2010 in raising awareness in schools and training and supporting staff to carry out the regulations.
But while the numbers are significantly down after an initial surge in terms of the confirmed cases of bullying, the task force said there remained too many and even warned of them climbing back up if the state and its schools don’t make some necessary improvements.
Last year, more than 6,214 confirmed incidents were reported, down from 6,515 the year before but the smallest decline since the law’s enactment.
“The number of HIB incidents has begun to plateau and without continued focus on these … areas, the [task force] is concerned that these statistics will begin to rise,” the group wrote in its conclusion. “We trust that everyone’s concern for the safety of our students will not allow that to happen.”
The report is voluminous, totaling 265 pages in all, including all the appendices and citations. And the recommendations are equally weighty, more than 70 in all.
Many of them will next be taken up by the state department itself, as code changes are put before the state Board of Education at its next meeting on February 10. A critical one is putting the principal at the center of the decision-making as to whether a case is pursued as a bullying case or can be taken up elsewhere in the code of conduct. Another recommendation would add language that would clarify that bullying is often a case of difference in power between bully and victim.
“Power imbalance is the hallmark of bullying,” said Patricia Wright, the chair of the panel and executive director of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association. “Rather than just being about the distinguishing characteristics of the victim, it is also what are the motivating characteristics of the bully.”
The proposed code would also include language for investigating cases of adults bullying children or another adult, including some rules on who would investigate in these instances.
In an interview yesterday, Wright said it is time for the state board to move on code changes, with some of the recommendation now dating back two years. The state department issued some clarifying guidance last November, but she said the regulations are critical.
“It’s been a long time,” Wright said of the process that started three years ago. “We need to move on this.”
Other recommendations apply to the districts themselves, such as ensuring that all staff are adequately trained and prepared in addressing cases of bullying and also strategies for improving school climate as a whole.
One specific and practical recommendation is that districts should convene their school safety and climate teams more than twice a year.
Others will be trickier to act on, including finding additional financial support for districts to continue to carry out the law. In a survey of educators conducted by the task force, the question of resources raised the most concerns, with only a third of respondents saying there were enough to adequately implement the law.
Wright yesterday said the resources are especially needed in helping districts continue to build a positive environment within their schools, be it in programs or staffing. She said that piece is too often lost in all the discussion about bullying itself.
“We really need to target climate improvement,” she said. “That is really what will keep the bullying at bay.”
When asked whether she thought the law had been a success, Wright said the higher awareness and lower numbers were encouraging.
“In that way, it has had a positive impact,” she said. “Now, we just ask all the stakeholders to listen to our recommendations and put them into practice.”