N.J. anti-bullying law runs out of cash

The deal was announced in the governor’s office in early March, a bipartisan agreement to save New Jersey’s anti-bullying law with an infusion of cash and a promise to take a harder look at ways the state can support school districts.

Four months later, the cash for last year has been spent, none is appropriated for the next, and the task force created to examine the law and its impact is still to meet.

Such has been the checkered history of the new law, considered one of the toughest in the country for its strict rules to investigate and closely track accusations of bullying.

But from the start, some schools have bristled at several of the requirements, with a few bringing a legal challenge against the state claiming that it was creating an unfunded mandate.

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The state’s Council on Local Mandates agreed, and that was when Gov. Chris Christie announced a deal with the Legislature to appropriate $1 million for the implementation, plus create the task force.

The $1 million was awarded last week to more than 370 districts, out of nearly $5 million in requests. The grants — essentially a fifth of what each district requested — ranged from $36 in Haledon to more than $38,000 in Camden. There was little clear pattern to the grants; some of the largest going to small districts, and some of the smallest to large districts.

The requests covered everything from staff training to teacher stipends to school assemblies. Haledon’s amount was a fifth of its total request for $180, reportedly to pay for additional paperwork involved in investigating claims, but a large part of the costs were for personnel and their time.

Under the law, every school must assign a staff member to be the anti-bullying specialist to oversee programs and conduct investigations, often paying him or her for the added responsibilities.

Still, the grants only covered the past school year, and state officials confirmed this week that no specific line item has been set aside in the next state budget.

The state did appropriate $158,000 for the hiring of two anti-bullying specialists in the state Department of Education to help conduct staff training, and a spokesman did not rule out additional funds.

“We are working to identify resources available to districts and schools to support their work in implementing the law,” said Justin Barra, the department’s communications director.

He said the new task force, made up of members appointed by the governor and legislative leaders, would have its first meeting on July 26.

One of the members of the new task force, East Hanover superintendent Joseph Ricca, said that too much attention is given to the costs. His district didn’t apply for state funding, he said, recognizing the limited pot of money but also what can be done without it.

“For us, the training was part and parcel of our instructional program,” Ricca said. “There is a lot you can do to improve the climate and culture of school that doesn’t cost money.”

Still, many of his peers do raise the ongoing concerns to him, and Ricca said he hopes the new task force will help address some of them. “There is no doubt this will be an ongoing conversation,” he said.

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