Employment and Labor

NJ Gets Tough on Harassment and Bullying

NJ Gets Tough on Harassment and Bullying

Originally published in School Leader, July/August 2011 edition.

Schools must comply with new legislation beginning the the 2011-2012 school term.

Although New Jersey first enacted anti-bullying legislation in 2002, legislators felt compelled to make additional changes in the law this past January. The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights (A-3466), which passed both houses of the state Legislature by an overwhelming majority, was signed by Gov. Chris Christie on Jan. 5.

The legislation was passed against the backdrop of the tragic death of Tyler

Clem-enti, the Rutgers University freshman who committed suicide last fall after his roommate secretly video-streamed on the Internet an encounter Clementi had in his dorm room with a man.

But the harassment and bullying prob­lems go deeper than just one individual. A study conducted by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2009 indicated that the number of New Jersey students who were bullied was one percent­age point higher than the national median. Further studies revealed that 32 percent of students aged 12 through 18 were bullied in the previous school year and 25 percent of responding schools indicated that bullying was a daily or weekly problem.

As a result of the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, school campuses across the state of New Jersey will begin the 2011-2012 school year with stricter guidelines aimed at ending bullying on and off school campuses. The new legislation has been heralded as the toughest law in the nation against bullying and harass­ment in schools.

School districts will need to formally adopt new board policy to bring them into compliance with the policy provisions in the new law. The new main policy on harassment and bullying, filed at 5131.1 in the Critical Policy Reference Manual, runs approximately 14 pages. In addition, there are six other related policies that have been amended to conform to the new legislation. The policies are avail­able to NJSBA members via the “What’s New” section of the NJSBA website, at www. njsba.org. (If members have difficulty finding the policies, they should contact Lisa Deon at Legal & Policy Services at (609) 278-5222.)

Mandatory Training

Legislators recognized that training is key to reducing the frequency of bullying incidents in schools. Rather than just requiring front-line staff to learn how to recognize the signs of bullying, the new law reaches further, requiring training and prevention programs aimed at school board members, administrators, staff, volunteers and even the kids themselves.

The new law, which is rich in detail, requires policies for training children and adults, and methods for tracking and controlling bullying and harassment in schools or outside of schools

Mandatory training, conducted by NJSBA, will be required for school board members. The NJSBA is currently in the process of developing the training program, which includes bringing in experts in bullying prevention to train board members to recog­nize and prevent harassment, intimidation and bullying in schools.

Board training will include a full expla­nation of the relevant points of the new law and will be incorporated into the mandatory training currently provided to first-, second- and third-year board members. Board members in the first year of any re-elected or re-appointed term will also complete the training program.

Reeducating administration and staff on what constitutes harassment, intimidation and bullying is a key component of the new law which extends the borders of responsibility beyond school walls and school-sponsored activities. Any time a school staff member is made aware of an incident – even if it happened after school hours or away from the school – the incident must be reported. This includes any incident that may infringe upon the rights of a student, create a hostile educational environment for that student or interfere with the student’s education by caus­ing physical or emotional harm.

Incidents are defined to include any act – written, verbal, or through electronic commu­nication. Harassment may also be motivated by actual or perceived characteristics.

The new law requires a broad spectrum of training programs, not only for students and teachers, but for anyone connected with the school district:

  • As part of their training on harassment, intimidation and bullying, teachers will be required to complete a minimum of two hours of instruction in suicide prevention conducted by a licensed professional. The curriculum must incorporate facts related to how cases of harassment and bullying can lead to suicide.
  • Training will be required for school admin­istration and teacher certification.
  • Staff assigned as school liaison to law enforcement must be trained in how to protect students from harassment, intimi­dation and bullying.
  • Every October, a “Week of Respect” will allow schools to provide age-appropriate instruction to students on the prevention of bullying, supported by ongoing instruc­tion throughout the school year.

Strict Compliance with Law May Reduce Litiga­tion Risks

Across the country, school districts, administrators and teachers are defending themselves in lawsuits related to school bul­lying as parents turn to the courts to provide relief for their children and to exact punish­ment on perpetrators when a child is a victim of bullying. Accused of passively observing harassment and bullying, schools are finding current policies need to be revamped.

Simply by complying with the new law, New Jersey school boards may lessen their vulnerability to litigation. School attorneys may remember the 2007 New Jersey Supreme Court case, L.W. v. Toms River Regional School Board of Education. In that case, the court held that a school district is liable for student-on-student harassment when the district knew, or should have known, of student harassment, but failed to take actions reasonably calculated to end the offensive conduct.

The new law, which is rich in detail, requires policies for training children and adults, methods for tracking and controlling bullying and harassment in schools or outside of schools, as well as procedures for conveying information on bullying to the public.

Dedicated Anti-Bullying Staff Positions

A new job description will greet many staff members this year. School principals are required to appoint a currently employed individual as an anti-bullying specialist. This may mean more policies related to harassment and bullying.

Specialists and coordinators will find their plates full. Bullying prevention pro­grams will no longer be optional. Appropri­ate responses to activities, whether on or off school grounds, will have to be implemented. Reporting and investigation processes will be strictly enforced.

In addition, school districts will be required to establish school safety teams in each school. These teams, tasked with fostering and maintaining a positive school climate, will be made up of staff, volunteers, parents and law enforcement. The school’s anti-bullying specialist is sure to be actively involved, if not actually leading the group’s efforts. The requirement that each Anti-bullying specialist and coordinator will have their name and contact information posted on the school and district website will make reporting incidents easier.

Legislative leaders did recognize that schools districts might shoulder an increased financial burden as a result of implementing new regulations. Their creation of the “Bullying Prevention Fund” is meant to provide grants to districts for training purposes. Although the fund has been created, there is currently no money in it, nor is there any mechanism to ensure it will be funded in the course of regular state education budgeting. It remains to be seen how this fund will acquire resources.

Each Incident to Receive Increased Scrutiny

Formal processes dictating the reporting of incidents of harassment, intimidation and bullying will be established. The legislation has established guidelines, which include:

  • Principals are to be verbally informed of any incident during the same day that a staff or contract employee learns of or witnesses an episode of bullying, harass­ment or intimidation. Written reports must be submitted within two days.
  • The principal must inform the parents/ guardians of all involved students and explore counseling and other interven­tion options.
  • A formal investigation, conducted by the anti-bullying specialist, will be initiated within one day of the initial report and will be concluded as soon as possible, but not later than 10 days following the written report.
  • Results of the investigation must be reported to the superintendent of schools within two days of its completion and to the board of education at its next sched­uled meeting.
  • Reports must include services provided, training information, discipline – which may include suspension or expulsion of the perpetrator, and any other actions or recommendations.
  • Parents and guardians will have recourse. They can request a hearing or file a complaint. The New Jersey Department of Education must establish a formal procedure for investigating complaints that schools and districts are not complying with the law.

Beefed Up Reporting Processes

The new law includes a focus on tracking incidents and enforcing accountability. Statistical informa­tion will be readily available to parents and the general public. Student report cards will be required to include the number and types of harassment, intimidation and bullying incidents at their schools.

Schools and districts will be graded on their efforts to comply with the “Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act.” The biggest change is that they must not only show an effort to identify incidents, but must also actively implement policies and programs aimed at reducing harassment, intimidation and bullying.

Every semester, the superintendent of schools will be required to submit a report to the board of education documenting all incidents of bullying. This comprehensive report, required to include numbers, status of investigations, nature of bullying, names of investigators, type and nature of discipline, and programs aimed at the reduction of bul­lying, must be broken down by school as well as reflect data on a district-wide basis.

The report will be used to assign grades to each school and each district. Within ten days of receipt, the grades must be posted to the home pages of school and district websites with links to the report.

Each year, the education commissioner will be required to submit a report to the Education Committees of the Senate and General Assembly that details incidents and makes recommendations for confronting the problem. The report will be made available to the public no later than Oct. 1, and will be posted on the department’s website.

It’s important to note that school districts are required to re-evaluate policies and make necessary changes on an annual basis and disciplinary actions will be initi­ated against employees who fail to report an incident or initiate an investigation.

School Board Members May Face Increased Risk of Litigation

The new law requires that a board member, when he or she has reliable informa­tion concerning, or is witness to, a bullying incident is to report it to the district superin­tendent. A board member has immunity from lawsuits, if that member reports an incident of which they have knowledge. For instance, if the parents of a bullying victim are not happy with the resolution of an incident and they sue, the reporting board member is immune. However, boards and districts should check with their insurance carriers to make sure liability insurance covers board members and the school district employees in these events.

There is also some concern that board members may be at risk of litigation when an accused bully (especially if reported by a school board member) is later found to be innocent of a purported bullying incident. Just the accusation of bullying could lead parents to sue for damages when their child is found to be innocent of the charge. It is suggested that boards check with insurance carriers to see if their liability insurance would cover this type of incident.

Extending the Intent of the Law

Public colleges and universities, including all centers of higher education, must incorporate poli­cies related to harassment, intimidation and bullying within their student code of ethics. In addition, private schools are requested to comply with the law.

Embracing the Future

Can we completely remove the threat of bullies in schools? Prob­ably not. But New Jersey’s newly enacted legislation goes a long way toward protect­ing kids in the environment that dominates their formative years. The challenge lies in effectively implementing the myriad provisions of the law.