A task force charged with looking at the benefits and challenges of New Jersey’s new anti-bullying law has published its first report, recommending that schools be allowed more discretion in identifying and investigating possible acts of bullying.
The unit was formed last spring on the heels of the 2011 passage of the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights (ABR), which imposed tough new requirements on schools to not just act on accusations of bullying but to resolve the issue within a set timeframe.
While school districts first said that the renewed attention to bullying was valuable, many administrators complained that the rules compelled them to move on every allegation, demanding significant time and effort on the part of staff.
As a result, several districts filed formal challenges against the new law as an unfunded state mandate, which led to the creation of the task force. The districts won the challenge in the state Council on Local Mandates, leading to a new $1 million grant program for them to tap into.
In appropriating the funds, the Christie administration and Legislature charged the task force to report back every six months to recommend (if needed) how to improve the law and its implementation.
The 67-page report filed on Monday -- and not announced by either the Christie administration or the Legislature -- seeks to smooth some rough edges while giving the statute a generally positive review.
The most significant recommendation turns on the definition of what constitutes harassment and bullying, a sometimes-subjective interpretation despite a plethora of legalistic definitions.
After conducting focus groups and surveys in different districts, the task force said the confusion over what distinguishes bullying from a simple conflict has left districts erring on the side of caution, to both protect students and their own liability.
But that approach also may have led to an overreaction, according to the task force, with districts launching full-blown investigations with every accusation.
According to the report, “It appeared that confusion over the [bullying] definition led to [nonbullying] behaviors being reported, thus requiring a definition
Rather than formulating that definition, however, the task force recommended that principals or their designees be given more leeway to make the initial call on a case-by-case basis, deciding if a bullying investigation should be launched or if the incident should be addressed by another part of the discipline code.
The primary sponsor of the legislation yesterday said she was pleased with the task force’s work and recommendations so far, saying that the law always intended for administrators to use their professional judgment.
“The greatest concern about the law has been around confusion in the definition,” said state Assemblywoman Valerie Huttle (D-Bergen). “But I always believed they should use common sense."
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