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Cerf Upholds Bullying Charges in First Cases Under Tough New Law

State education chief rejects parents’ appeals in East Brunswick, Tenafly incidents.

One involved an East Brunswick sixth-grader who called out a classmate in gym for “dancing like a girl.”

The other involved a fourth-grader in Tenafly who embarrassed a classmate for having head lice.

In the first legal cases to go the distance under New Jersey’s tough new law, both episodes have been upheld by the state as incidents of bullying and harassment.

Parents of the accused students had appealed the initial findings by the local districts. But state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf this month upheld the schools’ determinations in each instance, the first such rulings by the commissioner under the state’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights.

Legal experts said there will surely be more such cases to come.

“It takes a while for them to work through the system, but you’ll certainly see more,” said Phil Stern, an attorney with Adams Stern Gutierrez & Lattiboudere in Newark, who represents school boards in these and other cases.

Stern said he was not surprised by the appeals, each focusing more on the findings than on any particular penalty. Nor was he surprised by the outcomes, with Cerf largely required only to determine if the process was properly followed.

“You will have a super uphill battle in one of these cases by the time you come before the commissioner,” he said.

The 2011 law requires that schools follow specific procedures and timelines in all cases of even alleged bullying, stipulating when investigations must be launched and resolved with formal findings.

The new law has roiled school districts since its enactment, with more than 13,000 incidents reported by schools in the law’s first year. A state task force monitoring the law’s implementation this week praised the increased awareness of bullying in schools, but also recommended more flexibility be given principals to determine what cases are to be formally investigated.

But that was long after each of these first cases moved through the process, two cases that highlighted some of the tensions that have arisen surrounding the law and its aftermath.

In East Brunswick, for instance, the incident took place in November 2011, when the accused child insulted his classmate by calling him “gay” and saying he “danced like a girl,” according to the case’s legal record.

The school investigated the claim, interviewing the students and witnesses, and found that under the district’s anti-bullying policies -- now strengthened under the state’s new law -- it warranted a finding of bullying. The boy was given three days of detention.

The parents appealed to the state, demanding that the finding be reversed and damages paid. They also asked that the accusing student be given three days of detention.

The case went to an administrative law judge, who found that the case had fallen under the definition as laid out in the new law as “verbal acts motivated by distinguishing characteristics, i.e. gender and sexual orientation.”

“A.C. [the accused] is not a chronic troublemaker, but his actions were hurtful and unkind,” read a synopsis of Cerf’s decision. “The school district’s response of assigning him to detention was designed to redirect A.C.’s behavior in a manner that was consistent with his age and that recognized this was a first offense.”

Cerf, who is an attorney, has the responsibility in these matters to only determine that the local agency had not acted in an arbitrary and capricious manner, and he did so.

“As [the new law] directs that each school directs that each school district’s anti-bullying policy shall contain ‘consequences and appropriate remedial action for a person who commits an act of harassment, intimidation or bullying,’ [the board] did not act arbitrarily, capriciously or unreasonably in imposing upon A.C. three days of detention as discipline for his conduct,” Cerf wrote.

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gjc February 03, 2013 at 10:25 AM
Genuine bullying is serious and should be addressed immediately and appropriately. That said, so many so-called bullying cases are isolated (one-time) incidents of little or no consequence and this "killing a flea with a cannon ball" response is beyond ridiculous. What do thes kids do when they graduate and have to deal with the real world and real problems?
Joanne February 03, 2013 at 02:22 PM
I agree that an isolated incident for a child who does not have a history can be dealt with with a single day of detention, rather than three, which seems like an over-reaction. The idea is to get this child's attention before his behavior becomes a pattern. I wouldn't describe the incident as having "little or no consequence," but the school district needs to resist the impulse to become a bully, itself! I hope that the incident does not become part of the child's 'permanent record,' where it may pose a problem for the child, in the future--again, that would be the district being a bully!
WMS826 February 03, 2013 at 03:50 PM
Ha..just another way for goverment to eat up your money and it's time. Lets be real here, these are kids who in the history of mankind were always the cruelest. They change as they grow and mature and become better people without goverment involvement. East Brunswick schools are a bit over the top on a good day. This is just too much. Secession now I say, liberal states vs old fashioned conservative ones and we will see who excells then.
Joe R February 03, 2013 at 04:44 PM
We already have supposed liberal states versus supposed right wing states and NJ (Mass & CT) schools are better than the more right wing states. NJ schools are always in the top tier of the nation's schools, NJ schools do excel. The reason that bullying has become such a concern is because of the recent suicides and also of kids bringing weapons to schools to harm or kill their tormenting bullies. The idea that there was always bullying going on, so let's do nothing is really no argument at all. I would agree that it is yet another mandate on the public schools but in the service of a good cause.
Joe R February 03, 2013 at 04:49 PM
@WMS826: Secession now? What does that mean? Do you live in NJ or Texas? We already had a war over secession and guess what, the secessionists lost big time. It was the most costly and bloodiest conflict for American troops, more combatants were killed in the Civil War (more than 650,000) than all the other wars the US participated in combined.
Joe R February 03, 2013 at 05:57 PM
Just to clarify: more American combatants were killed in the Civil War (more than 650,000) than all the other wars the US participated in combined. I was just referring to the deaths of Americans in combat not of the foreign combatants.
Tamnia Jasemin February 06, 2013 at 12:25 PM
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