Supporters of New Jersey's newly amended anti-bullying law say it will create a tough safety net for students who had been afraid to go to school because of continued bullying, even as administrators and others brace for the impact from increased reporting requirements.
The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act , which went into effect Sept. 1, includes several key changes to the previous law, particularly by addressing incidents that occur off school grounds, holding educators responsible for reporting all instances of bullying, and appointing an anti-bullying specialist at each school.
Under the new law, educators and school officials will be trained in bullying prevention and intervention and will be responsible for reporting instances of harassment, intimidation, and bullying to the school's principal. Each school will be graded by the state on its progress, and all grades will be posted on schools' websites.
If a principal fails to recognize or handle any incident both sufficiently and within the time frame, he or she may be subject to disciplinary action.
"We did this because some incidents were not being addressed, and we feel by addressing an issue promptly, we can handle it before it gets out of hand," said Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, a Democrat and one of the sponsors of the bill.
But some school administrators have expressed concern about the costs of implementing the new measure and the possibility of overpolicing students.
To help eliminate overhead costs, the law suggests administrators name guidance counselors and psychologists already employed at the schools as the anti-bullying specialists, but some think that approach will stretch already-thin resources.
"Not every incident will be bullying, but there will be a tendency to want to report it just in case," Richard Bozza, the executive director of the New Jersey School Administrators Association, said in a prepared statement.
The new law came on the heels of public outcry over the suicide last year of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, whose roommate videotaped him having a sexual encounter with a man. The roommate was indicted on hate-crime charges.
The measure requires any adult working in a school who notices an incident of bullying to orally report it to the principal that same day, and a written report detailing the incident must be made to the principal within two days of the occurrence. Parents of all students involved will also be notified within that time frame.
Although the responsibility of reporting any incidents will fall mainly on the shoulders of teachers, it will also be the job of adult volunteers working in the schools, contracted service providers, and other school staff members.
Allison Kobus, a New Jersey education department spokeswoman, said the agency sent out a model policy and guidance for districts, but she said it was not up to the department to interpret the language of the law.
As for how to differentiate between child's play and bullying, the law states: "It is through explanation, dialogue, and skill-building among students and staff that the school district can clearly distinguish, for example, ‘friendly teasing' and ‘rough and tumble play' from [harassment, intimidation, bullying]."
But Marcus Rayner, the executive director of the New Jersey Lawsuit Reform Alliance, a Trenton-based tort-reform advocacy organization, said the law puts tremendous responsibility on educators and could put them on the defensive in dealing with behavioral problems in the classroom.
"I think all our educators want to address bullying, but this law is so intricate and detailed and creates so much responsibility for teachers," Mr. Rayner said. "There are so many ways they can make inadvertent or honest mistakes while trying to do the right thing."
Ms. Huttle, however, insists tough policies are necessary.
"In the 21st century, there's Facebook and Twitter and cellphones," she said. "So bullying doesn't stop at 3 o'clock, and neither should a school's authority."