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Anti-Bullying Law Challenges Districts, Benefits Students

Described as the toughest in nation, law takes firm stance against harassment and intimidation.

The Parsippany-Troy Hills school district is pulling out the stops to promote a major focus of the 2011-12 school year: Implementation of the state's new law, the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights. 

The law exists to draw a line in the sand against what's being called HIB for short: harassment, intimidation and bullying.

This summer, local educators scrambled to get all the pieces in place to comply with the statute, which went into effect with the new school year's first opening bell.

Superintendent LeRoy Seitz said he was confident that his teachers, staff members and students would be able to navigate any rough patches that arise and make the fight against HIB a success.

But, he said, it won't be easy.

The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights

The New Jersey anti-bullying law,  to the applause of many, is currently seen as the toughest in the country.

The bill gained momentum after the tragic suicide of Rutgers student , who jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate allegedly streamed a romantic encounter between him and another man on the internet.

The new law aims to protect children from harassment that would interfere with their education.

As part of the long list of provisions, teachers, administrators and other staff must undergo suicide prevention training with regards to harassment, intimidation, and bullying.

Each school must establish an anti-bullying specialist, and a “safety team” which will work to investigate complaints, maintain a positive school environment, and implement programs mandated by the law. The district must appoint an anti-bullying coordinator to strengthen anti-bullying policies and oversee the specialists in each school.

Upon learning of a bullying incident, school staff must report it in writing to the principal within one day, with a full investigation to follow in the next 10 days. This includes incidents that occur off school grounds, such as cyberbullying or charged text messages. Administrators who fail to take action after becoming aware of a problem are subject to discipline.

Students found to be bullying others could be suspended or expelled. (The law does allow for appeals.)

Although legislators have said enacting the bill will not create a need for additional staffing or funding, the New Jersey School Board Association (NJSBA) said it may require additional compensation doled out to union members. Those costs are currently unknown.

Under the anti-bullying bill, school superintendents must report all of the incidents that occurred within the past six months in a public hearing, held twice a year. Those reports are provided to the state education department, which will include them in online "school report cards."

The Law, Applied

Seitz said the law presents enormous challenges for the district. 

First, he noted the difficulty of finding and training one specialist for each of Parsippany's 14 schools.

"The school specialist is key because he or she investigates any allegation of a HIB," he said, adding that this unpaid, add-on job is a huge responsibility to undertake.

And then there is the matter of procedure, which is stringent, and timelines, which Seitz described as "tight."

"Let's say I'm the specialist,and you report something to me verbally," the superintendent said. "You have to give me a written report within 24 hours. Then the specialist has 10 days to do his or her report. That has to be sent to me [the superintendent] in two days, and then I have to give it to the Board of Education at its next meeting."

There is a reason for the high level of reporting. In the past, many HIB cases went unreported. The most recent figures available from the state education department are from the 2008-09 school year, when New Jersey schools reported 2,846 HIB incidents. Experts believe the real number of occurrences is much higher than records show. With the new law, the plan is to ensure that all bullying cases end up being reported.

Parsippany's Anti-HIB Plan

The district plans to combat bullying through education. In fact, it has already started.

Last month, Parsippany Hills and Parsippany high schools co-sponsored the Student Leadership Retreat, a two-day seminar held at The Hills that taught young leaders to stand against HIB. The event engaged the teenagers through the use of interactive, collaborative projects, discussion groups, games and role-playing exercises.

A major part of the gathering was instilling a sense of pride and responsibility in the attendees.

Det. Supervisor Mark Castellano, of the Morris County Prosecutor's Office's Intelligence Crime Task Force, an expert in cybercrime, talked to students about cyberbullying and responsibility.

“There’s people looking to you," Castellano said. "You guys are already the leaders in your demographic—the future leaders. ... I’m asking you respectfully to think about what you say. Over the Internet, there could be 30 thousand people, or 30 million, that hear your opinion and give one back to you."

Castellano talked directly to the students about the new anti-bullying law.

“The expectations on the school have now been elevated [because] this is such an invasive problem," he said. "If students don’t feel safe, they can’t leave."

Ricky McNulty, a senior at Parsippany Hills High, said he found the training illuminating.

“It’s interesting to see how people take different perspectives on what makes a good leader, and how we all learn from each other," he said.  "I have been bullied as a kid, and I can understand how it feels. I think in the long term it will make me a better leader.”

Dr. Nancy Gigante, principal at The Hills, said the law really is not the point of the district's anti-bullying pursuits.

“I think we’ve been very lucky and proactive about bullying. We’re always infusing [anti-bullying education] into our curriculum. We do a lot of mediation, use our counselors, our school resource officers. Throughout the year, we focus on making our school a safer, more comfortable place to be," she said. "But it falls in really well with the new legislation."

Apparently, the state agrees that education plays a part in ending HIB. The law mandates that schools throughout New Jersey observe a “Week of Respect,” during which students are to receive age-appropriate instruction in preventing bullying. This year's event takes place Oct. 3-7.

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