With lots of changes, anti-bullying bill advances in NJ
TRENTON — A bill that seeks to strengthen New Jersey’s anti-bullying law is back where it was 18 months ago – approved overwhelmingly by the Senate and awaiting consideration in the Assembly.
The bill was passed unanimously by the full Senate in December, supported even by one lawmaker — Sen. Mike Doherty, R-Warren — who had abstained during the earlier committee vote because he had heard from school districts about bureaucratic concerns caused by the original anti-bullying law.
“Nobody supports bullying in schools, and we think that all students should have a safe and happy learning environment,” said Doherty.
The bill, S1790, requires school districts to include in their anti-bullying policies the specific consequences for a student harassing, intimidating or bullying a schoolmate. It also requires superintendents to provide a school board data on the number of confirmed bullying reports.
“Bullying is too often dismissed as ‘kids being kids.’ Let’s be clear. Bullying destroys young lives,” said Sen. Patrick Diegnan, D-Middlesex.
The bill would also increase fines for parents or guardians for failure to comply with a court-ordered class or training on cyberbullying. Currently parents of minors under age 16 can be fined $25 to $100 for failing to attend classes with the child, but that would be raised to $100 to $500.
“A $25 fine isn’t going to do anything. Parents won’t miss a day of work to take their kid to class, they will just pay the fine,” said Sen. Joe Pennacchio, R-Morris. “Putting a higher price tag on compliance will get their attention and encourage them to put an end to their child’s dangerous conduct.”
An earlier version of the bill was passed by the Senate in June 2019. It wasn’t taken up by the Assembly in the six months that followed so had to start the process again from the beginning when the legislative session expired last January.
The bill was extensively amended, including to remove references to it as “Mallory’s Law,” after Mallory Rose Grossman, a 12-year-old Rockaway student who died by suicide in 2017.
“We are proud to support this bill,” said John Burns, of the New Jersey School Boards Association. “It represents the opportunity to provide additional levels of protections for students while giving school districts and school personnel the flexibility that they need to address school climate concerns.”
“This was a labor. It seems like a two-year labor for us. We got to a good place on this bill,” said Melanie Schulz, director of government relations for the New Jersey Association of School Administrators.
Debra Bradley, director of government relations for the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, thanked lawmakers and the Grossman family “for sitting down and working with us on the many changes that we think will strengthen the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights.”
Those changes eliminate a planned requirement that copies of reports about harassment, intimidation, or bullying must be forwarded to the school board before its next meeting and that board members and the school superintendent sign a statement attesting that they had read it.
Instead, a copy of the form without information identifying the student would be confidentially shared with the school board after an investigation is complete if a hearing is requested by a parent.
Principals are to tell a superintendent if a preliminary investigation finds an incident is outside the scope of the definition of harassment, intimidation or bullying.
In cases within the scope of that definition, a superintendent can require an investigation in writing. It must be completed within 10 school days. A superintendent can then seek out further information after getting the results of the investigation, but the bill was amended to say a school board cannot reopen an investigation after receiving its report about it.
The bill was amended to require schools to include on their homepage the Guidance for Parents on the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act developed by the state Department of Education. It also required school climate state coordinator to keep the document updated as needed and promptly disseminated.
Mallory’s Army, as the Grossman family calls its activism effort, said the proposal is “a 'base hit.’ While it won’t completely change bullying, it’s a step forward. World Series was never won without a few base hits.”
The earliest the bill could take effect is in the 2022-23 school year.
Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.