In less than two months, school districts across the state will be operating under some of the strictest anti-bullying policies in the nation. Yet local school officials say they are still confused about some of the state requirements and are unclear on how some aspects of the policies will be implemented.
What's more, they say, the potential workload brought on by the new regulations could inundate schools, which in many cases are operating on leaner staffs than they were a few years ago.
Before the start of the school year in September, districts must adopt individual anti-bullying policies, although much of what is included in those policies will be mandated by the state.
"We absolutely do not want kids to be bullied. We don't want anything tragic to happen to anyone on any level," Egg Harbor Township Superintendent Scott McCartney said. "That aside, the new policies are very intrusive and very time-intensive. They're going to require a lot of additional involvement from school staff without any funding to make that happen. As a district, we still have more questions than answers."
Gov. Chris Christie signed a law in January that toughened state requirements for how schools handle bullying. Previously state laws had only recommended that public school districts adopt anti-bullying policies.
The law was dubbed the "anti-bullying bill of rights." It had been in the works for several months, but the effort picked up steam in September 2010 when Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old Rutgers University student, committed suicide. Two students were charged with using a webcam to spy on Clementi in his dorm room while he had an encounter with a man days before the suicide.
A study released Wednesday by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network reported that 90 percent of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students in the state regularly hear homophobic remarks, and 34 percent of LGBT students are physically harassed.
"The alarming data from New Jersey reinforces the urgent need to effectively implement our state's new anti-bullying law," said Carol Watchler, co-chairwoman of the organization's Central New Jersey chapter. "Creating respect for all, regardless of perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, is a cornerstone of a safer, more positive environment."
Under the new regulations, each district will be required to have an anti-bullying coordinator. Individual schools must have anti-bullying specialists and school safety teams, which will receive students' bullying complaints. Nearly everyone in contact with students, including teachers, coaches and volunteers, will have to go through anti-bullying training.
Districts have until Sept. 1 to adopt anti-bullying policies or face financial penalties from the state. Many of the policies have been dictated in a 41-page model policy issued by the state. The model policy on harassment, intimidation and bullying includes definitions, investigation procedures and punishments as well as timelines for action. For example, after an incident is reported, the district must begin an investigation within one school day. Investigations can take no longer than 10 school days.
District officials say they are confused by state language that in some cases requires that the positions be taken over by current employees and in other cases only recommends that a current employee take on the role. They also say the state has promised to provide training videos and templates for reporting incidents, but in some cases the districts are still waiting to receive those resources.
Mullica Township Superintendent Brenda Harring-Marro said she is concerned.
"The way the law is written, now a one-time offense can be considered bullying rather than the traditional prolonged definitions," Harring-Marro said. "We're in this position as educators where we all know that a child calling another child a name one time is not bullying, but we will still have to go through the investigation and reporting procedures."
Under the new state definition, harassment, intimidation or bullying in part refers to any gesture, written or physical act or electronic communication that can be reasonably perceived as creating a hostile educational environment. The definition can refer to a single incident or a series of incidents. The definition also includes incidents that take place off school grounds.
In the Galloway Township school district, officials began reviewing an anti-bullying policy last month. Board members were visibly frustrated with their lack of control over the policy during a June 27 board meeting.
Board member Beverly Evensen brought up one of the only potential changes to be made to the policy. On a list of about three dozen state-approved remedial measures to correct harassing behavior, parent conferences were nearly the last item on the list. Evensen said conferences should be among the first options explored.
"I think we should give it the priority it deserves," Evensen said. "I have strong feelings that it should be more than an option."
Board member John Knorr called the policy a "logistical nightmare" due to the amount of paperwork that will have to be filed and the amount of time it will take administrators to complete that work.
Galloway, like many other districts, already had anti-bullying programs in place. However, the new policy will be much more involved.
"Let's get real about it," board Vice President George Schwenger said. "I don't think the world's going to change over this. I really don't."
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