More than 200 school districts in the state are spending more than $2 million this year to implement the state’s new anti-bullying law, according to survey results released Thursday by the New Jersey School Boards Association.
That’s twice what the state Legislature and Gov. Chris Christie agreed Wednesday to put into a state Bullying Prevention Fund, and raises questions about whether, even with the new money, the law might still be considered unconstitutional under the State Mandate/State Pay provision.
Survey respondents also said implementing the law without spending even more money has meant taking staff away from other duties.
“There has been a ripple effect on other services,” said Frank Belluscio, spokesman for the School Boards Association.
Counseling has been the area most affected, since counselors were most likely to have been the ones assigned to investigate reports of bullying.
Respondents were evenly split on whether the law has had a positive effect on school climate and reduced bullying.
The survey was done in February as a joint project by the state school boards, school administrators and school business officials associations. The law was declared unconstitutional in late January by the state Council on Local Mandates because it provided no funding to cover the cost of implementation.
John Sweeney, chairman of the council, said Wednesday that if the amended bill is passed, it will be up to school districts to decide whether the $1 million is enough. The original complaint was filed with the council by the Allamuchy school district in Warren County.
Statewide, about a third of the state’s public school districts responded to two surveys on costs and the impact of the law.
According to the results, nine out of 10 respondents said the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights had created additional costs, primarily for training and materials that made up about half of the $2 million cost.
About a third of the respondents said they had additional personnel costs, which made up another $1 million in costs. Results varied widely by district, with some reporting costs in the hundreds of dollars and others reporting tens of thousands of dollars primarily to cover stipends for extra work.
The state law requires districts to name an anti-bullying specialist and anti-bullying coordinator in each school. At the time of its passage, state officials said the duties could be handled by current staff so there should not be any additional costs.
Only 15 percent of respondents who had personnel expenses said they had hired additional staff. The rest said they had increased compensation to existing staff for the extra work.
Locally, district officials said the biggest monetary cost has been for training, but a major issue has been the time involved in investigating reported incidents of bullying.
Thomas Baruffi, superintendent at Mainland Regional High School and Linwood, said they did not spend much money because they covered the staffing issue in-house. But he said a lot of time has been spent, especially at the beginning of the year, because they wanted to be sure they were investigating each case properly.
The law includes a very specific timetable and lengthy process for investigating each complaint.
Galloway Township school Superintendent Annette Giaquinto said they spent some money over the summer to train the specialists and school-level “Bully Busting Teams” for their anti-bullying program. The staff took on the extra duties with no additional pay.
“In many instances staff members worked beyond their regular day without additional compensation,” Giaquinto wrote in an email. “In other instances some services were decreased or issues took longer to address.”
Baruffi said now that they have identified issues they would like to address, they could use some extra funds for programs.
Belluscio said the School Boards Association supports the amended bill with the $1 million in funding for this year as a first step in relieving the financial burdens of the bill.
The association has also asked districts for their projected costs for next year.
He said they also support the proposed new anti-bullying task force and hope it can provide some clarification on the definitions and investigation of harassment, intimidation and bullying, or HIB.
Belluscio said a big issue has been the “single incident” standard that has dramatically increased the number of investigations. While not every incident may be determined to be HIB, each must be investigated.
The amended bill, S-1789, was approved by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee Thursday. The Assembly Appropriations Committee will review its version of the bill Monday.
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