By Kaitlyn Dunphy, Esq.
More than a decade ago, New Jersey enacted the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act, designed to help prevent and address harassment, bullying, and bullying (HIB) in schools. The law requires school districts to adopt policies that implement procedures for reporting and investigating incidents of harassment, bullying, and bullying in schools, including at school-sponsored functions, in school buses, and if there is a significant school disruption, even conduct that occurs off school property. These policies should be made available on the District’s website.
For an incident to be considered HIB, the following must be present:
- A reasonable perception that the HIB is motivated by either an actual or perceived characteristic; and
- Disruption or substantial interference with the proper functioning of the school or the rights of other students; and
- One or more of the following:
– A reasonable person should know that the incident, in the circumstances, will result in physical or emotional harm to a student or damage to student property, or place a student in a reasonable fear of physical or emotional harm to his person or damage to his property; Where
– Has the effect of insulting or degrading any student or group of students; Where
– Creates a hostile educational environment for the student by interfering with a student’s education or causing severe or widespread physical or emotional harm to the student.
Examples of real or perceived characteristics included in the law are race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or a mental, physical or sensory disability. However, any distinguishing feature can meet this criterion.
HIB policies provide a procedure for reporting suspected HIB incidents. School personnel are required to verbally report to the Principal any potential HIB they witness or receive reliable information about on the day of the incident or when they receive such information. The report must be made in writing within two days of the verbal report.
Once a report of a potential HIB is received, it triggers the review and investigation process contained in district policy. The policy may give the principal or their delegate the discretion to decline to initiate an investigation if the allegations, if true, do not rise to the level of a HIB. If the allegations meet the HIB definition threshold, or if district policy does not include this initial review, an investigation will be initiated. Once an investigation is initiated, it must be initiated promptly, within one school day of the report, and be completed no later than 10 school days from the date of the written report.
The investigation is conducted by an anti-harassment specialist (ABS). An ABS is appointed by the principal and must be a school counselor, school psychologist, or other staff member employed by the school who is trained to be an ABS. An ABS must avoid any conflict of interest in his investigation, including when he is asked to investigate allegations against another member of his bargaining unit. Locals should advocate to avoid this conflict. A director is allowed to appoint more than one ABS, so someone outside the bargaining unit could be appointed to investigate to avoid a conflict of interest.
The school’s chief administrator is required to report the results of the investigation to the board, including information on services provided, training established, discipline imposed, or any other action recommended. Within five school days of the council receiving the report, the alleged perpetrators and alleged victims, or their parents or guardians if they are minors, have the right to receive certain information about the investigation. The law requires that they be informed of the nature of the investigation, whether evidence of HIB was found and, if so, what action was taken – whether disciplinary action was imposed or services were provided.
The board may hold, and a parent may request, a hearing before the board in executive session to consider the HIB report. At the next board meeting, the board must issue a written decision confirming, rejecting or modifying the findings of the school’s superintendent. Once the board has made its written decision, there are certain grounds on which board decisions can be appealed to the Commissioner of Education.
Kaitlyn Dunphy is Associate Director of NJEA Member Rights and Legal Services on the NJEA Executive Office. She can be contacted at [email protected]