Every school year brings changes and challenges, but few are as formidable as the one now facing administrators: implementing the state's new anti-bullying law.
The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights requires districts to have a host of new procedures and protocols in place when schools open their doors, strengthening the rules put in place in 2002 and 2007.
These include requirements that spell out the specific number of days allowed for a case to be reported, investigated and resolved. The law also expands the definitions of bullying, including the tricky issue of online or electronic harassment taking place outside of school.
More than 1,000 school administrators have gone to day-long training sessions across the state over the past month, organized by the New Jersey Association of School Administrators and the New Jersey School Boards Association.
The most recent was yesterday in North Brunswick, with one more left in Pomona tomorrow. The state is also conducting its own training sessions with representatives from every district in September. Ultimately, every teacher and staff member will undergo some training.
For the time being, districts in September will need to submit to the state their revised policies meeting the new requirements.
Not surprisingly, the session at North Brunswick High School yesterday, which brought together 200 superintendents, principals and other administrators, was led by a panel of lawyers.
Three areas stood out as likely posing the biggest challenges to schools.
There is no grace period for bullying claims anymore. The new law sets up a strict timetable:
School staff must report to the principal any alleged cases that they either witness or receive reliable information about within one day,
Witnesses must write reports within two days,
Principal alerts parents, and initiates investigation within one day,
Investigation completed within 10 days, and reported to superintendent two days after that,
Superintendent must recommend for intervention or other action to school board at next meeting; findings shared with parents. Parents may request hearing.
Those deadlines contain some wiggle room, to address extenuating circumstances. But the law sets a very clear protocol that one attorney compared to the now-standard workplace harassment rules that put the onus clearly on management.
"You may have had this in policy before, but this is now state law," said Michael Kaelber, director of legal services for the school boards association.
The law's strictest provisions may concern a district's responsibility to address harassment that takes place over the Internet or through texting or other electronic means, often outside of school hours.
This can be very tricky ground to negotiate, and the law seeks to establish clear parameters as to when a school must respond: 1) when school personnel have been made aware, and 2) when the action affects the school environment.
"The out-of school behavior creates a hostile educational environment, or substantially disrupts or interferes with the orderly operation of the school or the rights of other students," reads the law.
That, like all laws, is open to interpretation. Yesterday, the lawyers advised districts treat online harassment the same as any other incident.
"I wouldn’t worry so much about the medium in how it occurs," said Beth Finkelstein, assistant counsel to the school administrators group. "It is still the same action that occurs, whether online or in person."
As much as policies and practices are meant to affect behaviors, the new law also puts feet on the ground. Every school district is to have a anti-bullying coordinator, and every school is to have an anti-bullying "specialist," serving as the first line of defense.
The specialist is likely to be a guidance counselor or school psychologist appointed by the principal, and the role will be a sensitive one. It's up to the specialist to conduct the initial investigations and coordinate a school’s anti-bullying programs. The law requires the school provide contact information for that specialist on its website.
One thing the law does not stipulate is how to pay for these extra duties, and everybody yesterday expected there would be additional time and resources required.
"Definitely anticipate additional complaints and workload, especially in the beginning," said Kaelber.
He said the training sessions -- required for the broader school community of parents as well -- will surely lead to an increase in complaints, at least for a little while. Under the law, districts be required in their policies to include specific outlines for that community training.
"There will be this recognition, an 'I never knew' kind of reaction," he said. "Know that the next few weeks after that (training) there will probably be a spike."
But he and others said they expect it will ultimately calm as the schools and parents grow used to the new rules and protocols.
"I use the analogy of the workplace rules," said Kaelber. "Are we better off than we were in 1995, definitely. Is it perfect, no, but now everyone is more aware of what is appropriate and what is not."