How’s N.J. Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights doing? Depends upon whom you ask

On January 5th, 2011, Gov. Christie signed The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights (A-3466), a piece of legislation that intends to curtail New Jersey’s high incidences of bullying, intimidation, and harassment.

This is part of a series from education blogger Laura Waters of NJ Left Behind.

On January 5th, 2011, Gov. Christie signed The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights (A-3466), a piece of legislation that intends to curtail New Jersey’s high incidences of bullying, intimidation and harassment.

The bill went into effect on the first day of the 2011-2012 school year and was triggered by the suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi, who jumped off the George Washington Bridge after several incidences of cyber-bullying.

So, how’s the new legislation faring? Does it genuinely reduce bullying, harassment, and intimidation in NJ’s public schools?  Is it a political sleight of hand, using the Clementi tragedy as ignition for a popular piece of legislation? Is it a well-crafted bill that proactively stems the scourge of bias? Is it an example of bureaucratic overkill? As usual, it depends upon whom you ask.

First, a quick recap of the bill.

Here’s the definition of what constitutes a Harassment, Intimidation, and Bullying (HIB) violation:

“Any written, verbal or physical act, or any electronic communication, whether it be a single incident or a series of incidents, that is reasonably perceived as being motivated either by any actual or perceived characteristic, such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or a mental, physical or sensory (handicap) disability, or by any other distinguishing characteristic, that takes place on school property, at any school-sponsored function, or on a school bus, or off school grounds…that substantially disrupts or interferes with the orderly operation of the school or the rights of other students.”

Per the legislative process, once the bill was passed the NJ Department of Education issued a prolix set of regulations. These regulations govern the training of everyone from custodians to board members and the creation of district policies that adhere to strict timelines for incident reports, resolutions, hearings, submission of data, etc.

 (Interesting side story: originally, the law specified that districts couldn’t use any additional money to fund all of the required training and additional staff time, mainly because then it would be an “unfunded mandate,” theoretically verboten in NJ.)

Unfunded mandate?

But it is, of course, an unfunded mandate: how are districts supposed to pay for training and implementation without incurring costs?

So the Warren County district of Allamuchy (all of 400 kids) appealed the law to the obscure Council of Local Mandates, charging the new law did indeed [duh] cost them money.

The bill was then tweaked to include a $1 million grant to cover costs. 

Burdensome regulations, supercilious oversight, sweat-inducing timelines: what’s not to like?

But, seriously, how can anyone not salute the intentions of a bill that strives to reduce the bullying, harassment, and intimidation of innocent schoolchildren?

Here’s a few reactions from education mavens:

Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators:

“I think this has gone well overboard. Now we have to police the community 24 hours a day. Where are the people and the resources to do this?”

Steven Goldstein, Chair of Garden State Equality:

“a resounding success.”

Roxbury Superintendent James O’Neill:

“a bureaucratic nightmare.”

The verdict isn’t in yet

My own view is that the verdict isn’t in yet. Without any data available yet, we don’t know if the bill is changing school culture. Districts seem to be calming down; after a tense first few months of speed-training and policy-writing, many realize that, while onerous, implementation is workable. The attendant student assemblies on the dangers of bullying have certainly promoted awareness among students and staff.

No one can yet gauge the feasibility of the bill’s most controversial and ambitious element: holding schools accountable for incidents of harassment that take place off of school grounds, or in the regulation-resistant cyber-world of Facebook, Twitter and text messaging.

Sometimes new legislation that adds an extra helping on school districts’ full plates signals inefficiency. Sometimes it signals dutiful accountability. Sometimes it signals political calculations. Sometimes it signals the triumph of democratic idealism. School districts are still waiting to see whether the mixed signals that instigated the nation’s toughest anti-bullying law result in reduced instances of harassment and intimidation for vulnerable children.

 

Laura Waters is president of the Lawrence Township School Board in Mercer County. She also writes about New Jersey’s public education on her blog NJ Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter @NJleftbehind.

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