As students across the state head back to school, our Education Law Practice Group wishes to share pertinent information about
New Jersey’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act (the Act). Bullying not only has a serious impact on the psychological well-being of a student, it profoundly interferes with the student’s ability to learn. In a recent study published by the United States Departments of Justice and Education, 41% of students ages 12-18 who had been bullied reported that they thought the bullying would happen again. Therefore, it’s important that parents understand their child’s rights and their school district’s legal obligations.
The Act requires each public-school district to adopt a policy prohibiting “harassment, intimidation and bullying” (known as HIB) of a student on school property, at school-sponsored functions and on a school bus. The policy must include a definition of HIB conforming to the Act, a procedure for reporting and investigating an act of HIB, as well as the consequences and appropriate remedial action for a person who commits an act of HIB, among several other basic policy requirements. The Act not only prohibits acts of HIB committed by students, but also by adults, including teachers and school administrators.
HIB includes gestures and acts that are written, verbal or physical that can be reasonably perceived as being motivated either by any actual or perceived characteristic, such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or a mental, physical or sensory disability, or some other distinguishing characteristic. To be actionable, the HIB act has to substantially disrupt or interfere with the orderly operation of the school or the rights of other students. Actionable HIB conduct also has to be such that a reasonable person should know, under the circumstances, it will have the effect of (1) physically or emotionally harming a student, damaging the student's property or placing a student in reasonable fear of physical or emotional harm to his or her person or damage to his or her property; (2) insulting or demeaning any student or group of students; or (3) creates a hostile educational environment.
Having strong anti-HIB laws, policies and procedures in place is not always enough to protect students if parents are unaware of or do not understand their child’s rights. Therefore, it is essential that parents take a proactive approach to prevent and report bullying conduct by following these steps:
- Obtain a copy of the school district’s anti-HIB Policy and Regulation (sometimes called by-laws) to become familiar with the definition of HIB, the procedures for reporting HIB to school officials, and the investigation process that the school is required to follow. Districts typically post this information on their websites, but if you cannot locate it, request a copy from the school principal.
- Discuss with your child examples of HIB (remember HIB can take the form of abusive and threatening instant messages, texts, and social media posts) and encourage the student to go to parents, teachers or an adult with whom the student feels comfortable to report any bullying conduct. Assure the student that no one deserves to be bullied and that adults are available to help. Repeat the discussion as frequently as needed.
- Immediately report any acts of HIB to the principal in writing with as much detail as possible to enable the school to promptly and thoroughly investigate the alleged acts of HIB. The school must take actions reasonably calculated to stop the HIB.
- Understand that the laws prohibit retaliation against the student for reporting alleged acts of HIB, even if the school’s investigation later concludes that HIB did not occur.
- Regardless of the outcome of the investigation, the student’s identity must remain confidential; the school cannot reveal personally identifying information about the student.
- For disabled students who may have difficulty socializing with peers and processing their environment effectively, it may be helpful for their parents to request that the child study team include goals and objectives in their child’s individualized education program (IEP) that address development of socialization and self-advocacy skills.
- Ask school administrators what measures, policies and programs the school implements to teach non-disabled students tolerance for disabled students and whether school regularly teaches its students about the district’s anti-HIB policy.
- Parents of a disabled student who has been the victim of HIB, can request that the student’s IEP or 504 plan be modified to specifically address the negative effects of the bullying and include interventions to prevent the bullying from occurring in the future.
- Because a disabled student has a legal right to be educated in the least restrictive environment with non-disabled peers to the maximum extent appropriate as specified by the student’s IEP or 504 plan, parents should not agree to have the disabled student removed from his learning environment or be precluded from participating in school activities as a solution to the HIB.
- Consider discussing with an attorney any concerns about the school’s compliance with the anti-HIB laws.
If you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to contact Arla D. Cahill at
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