School districts must do their own investigation of a bullying complaint, even if the complaint is against a teacher and another agency does an independent investigation, according to a recent decision by state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf.

A New Jersey School Boards Association spokesman said the decision clarifies that all incidents, including those involving teachers or staff, must be investigated the same as student bullying.

The ruling stems from a case in Deerfield Township, Cumberland County, in which a parent alleged a teacher had forced her daughter, a kindergarten student at the school, to eat a bagel retrieved from a trash can in front of other students. The parent filed a complaint with the state Department of Education claiming the district did not do an investigation.

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The school district asked that the complaint be dismissed, saying an independent investigation had been conducted by the Department of Children and Families, Institutional Abuse Investigation Unit, which found no evidence of neglect or abuse.

An administrative law judge recommended the complaint be dismissed, stating local boards of education have reasonable discretion for various managerial matters and that the outside investigation was more independent than an internal investigation. The judge also noted the parent had not opposed the district's motion to dismiss the complaint.

The education commissioner rejected that recommendation, saying under New Jersey's Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act, all alleged acts of harassment, intimidation and bullying, or HIB, require a mandatory internal investigation by a school anti-bullying specialist. The decision notes the ALJ's analysis fails to recognize that completion of an internal HIB investigation is not discretionary.

The case was referred back to the court for further proceedings.

The July 30 decision, which was posted on the state Department of Education website Aug. 5, said it was unclear whether the school board had done the required internal HIB investigation. School officials could not be reached for comment Thursday.

Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association, said the commissioner's decision is consistent with their understanding of the law and does help clarify the process.

"The law does go beyond just student-on-student bullying," he said. "This decision does address following the Act in cases of alleged teacher bullying. The (independent) investigation may also be appropriate, but it isn't what the law says."

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