New Jersey bullying law could be model for Minn.

Anti-bullying sign
A sign encourages students to stop bullying at Hayes Elementary School in Fridley, Minn. Tuesday, May 29, 2012.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

Minnesota education leaders who want to toughen the state's anti-bullying law might be looking to New Jersey for inspiration.

Some members of a state task force that this week delivered its recommendations for changes to Gov. Mark Dayton, have held up New Jersey's recently passed anti-bullying law as an example of what Minnesota should do.

The New Jersey law requires all schools to train staff on bullying prevention, identify certain employees as dedicated anti-bullying coordinators, and to investigate and report all incidents of bullying. Those are some of the same elements a state task force would like to see in a new anti-bullying law here in Minnesota.

But some in New Jersey say the law hasn't been without its problems.

New Jersey officials have touted their bullying law since its passage in January 2011. This spring New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, reaffirmed his support for the measure at a news conference.

"We know that students have the best opportunity to learn and achieve when they're in an environment that's safe and free from bullying and intimidation," Christie said. "This legislation is extraordinarily important to meet those goals."

Julie Hertzog, Walter Roberts Jr.
Julie Hertzog and Walter Roberts Jr. are co-chairs of Gov. Mark Dayton's Task Force on the Prevention of Bullying. The task force sent its recommendations to the governor on Aug. 1.
MPR photo/Tim Post

Bipartisan action on the law came after the 2010 suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi following a case of cyber bullying.

Members of Minnesota's task force have called on lawmakers to the state's current statute, considered one of the weakest in the nation. At only 37 words, it does little to help schools draft effective anti-bullying policies.

But Richard Bozza, the head of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators, says Minnesota should be cautious in using his state's statute as a template.

"It's often been described here in New Jersey as the toughest anti-bullying law in the nation," he said. "It may be that, but I'm not sure it's the smartest."

Bozza's main complaint is that New Jersey's law requires investigation of lots of incidents in and out of school, even if they're minor.

"What we've seen here is an incredible amount of time taken on cases that I think principals and staff ought to have a little bit more discretion on how they handle," he said. "Because any allegation becomes a full-blown investigation."

Bozza said New Jersey school officials also have complained about the cost of complying with the law, which did not include funding for schools to use on employee training.

A state panel later ruled that schools were receiving an unfunded mandate. New Jersey lawmakers responded with a one-time $1 million payment to all school districts, which school officials claimed was only a fifth of what they needed. As of yet there's no money set aside for next year.

That's what Kelly Smith, superintendent of the Belle Plaine school district, is afraid might happen in Minnesota. Smith said schools likely will need to spend more time and money on bullying prevention in the future, and he questions whether they have the resources.

If Minnesota lawmakers join New Jersey in passing a tough anti-bullying measure in the future, Smith hopes they'll also find a way to provide schools with the money it takes to comply with such a law.

State Sen. Scott Dibble, a member of the state task force that recommended replacing Minnesota's bullying law, said schools should receive funds from the state if lawmakers act on the issue.

But Dibble said school officials' concern over the cost is premature, and not at all helpful as the state considers what to do next.

"To throw barriers and obstacles, and simply give some sort of bureaucratic response to addressing what is a real problem in kids' lives is irresponsible to me," said Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis.

In 2009, then-Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, vetoed anti-bullying legislation sponsored by Dibble. Since then, the issue has failed to gain traction in the Legislature.

It's likely to come up again next session if Dayton decides to follow the recommendation he's received to draft legislation for a new anti-bullying law.

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