Between 1999 and 2015, every state in the country passed a school anti-bullying law, as studies emerged confirming the negative health effects of school bullying. New Jersey was an early state to join the trend, originally passing an anti-bullying law in 2002. In 2012, it was updated and given a new name, “The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights.” Legislators hoped that the law would help make schools safer spaces for students.
A 2015 Columbia University research study has suggested that anti-bullying laws with features that are contained in New Jersey’s anti-bullying law are successful in reducing both bullying and cyberbullying by about 20%. The first such feature is the requirement that each school district produce its own policy on bullying, and the second is a precise definition of what constitutes bullying.
Parents and teachers concerned about bullying should read their school district’s anti-bullying policy. The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights requires the district to post its anti-bullying policy on its website. The district’s policy will have certain key features that are dictated by the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights, but the statute intentionally leaves many of the finer details up to the school district to decide on its own, with the involvement of the community. Many questions you might have about the rights and responsibilities of you and your students can be found in this policy. Your district’s anti-bullying policy is a creature that can evolve over time with your input.
One important part of the district’s policy that the statute does require is the definition of HIB. “HIB” stands for “harassment, intimidation, or bullying.” You may have a sense of what each of those words mean, but under New Jersey’s anti-bullying law, the entire phrase, “harassment, intimidation, or bullying” is short-hand for acts that meet a complex legal standard. The New Jersey Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights defines HIB as:
any gesture, any written, verbal or physical act, or any electronic communication, whether it be a single incident or a series of incidents, that is 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 by any other distinguishing characteristic, that takes place on school property, at any school sponsored function, on a school bus, or off school grounds . . . that substantially disrupts or interferes with the orderly operation of the school or the rights of other students and that:
a. a reasonable person should know, under the circumstances, will have the effect of physically or emotionally harming a student or damaging the student's property, or placing a student in reasonable fear of physical or emotional harm to his person or damage to his property;
b. has the effect of insulting or demeaning any student or group of students; or
c. creates a hostile educational environment for the student by interfering with a student’s education or by severely or pervasively causing physical or emotional harm to the student.
It’s important for parents and teachers to understand that there is a distinction between HIB and other forms of aggression that we might colloquially call “bullying” or “harassment.” The key distinction is that HIB involves aggression motivated by a “distinguishing characteristic.” In an episode of HIB, a student is targeted for mistreatment by another because of some characteristic that the victim has or is perceived to have. Distinguishing characteristics go beyond those listed and can include things like height, weight, class, and facial features.
However, there are also limits to what a “distinguishing characteristic” might be. The Appellate Division of the Superior Court of New Jersey has stated that “harmful or demeaning conduct motivated only by another reason, for example, a dispute about relationships or personal belongings, or aggressive conduct without identifiable motivation, does not come within the statutory definition.” The where are a number of reasons one student might harass another which may or may not fit the definition of “distinguishing characteristic.” In one case before the Office of Administrative Law, parents argued that their student-athlete daughter was being harassed by other athletes jealous of her superior athletic ability. The court declined to determine whether “superior athletic ability” was a “distinguishing characteristic.” In another case, parents claimed that their son was made of fun of for the shoes he wore. The court also declined to determine whether his choice in shoes was a “distinguishing characteristic.” Another issue courts have not yet weighed in on is whether a student who gets harassed for expressing a controversial political belief has been attacked for a “distinguishing characteristic.”
Why does it matter whether student aggression falls into the HIB definition? Shouldn’t all bullying be punished? Schools of course have an obligation to make sure their students are safe and that their code of conduct is enforced, regardless of the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights. But a finding of HIB triggers a number of particular administrative obligations on the district. Moreover, some events that are virtually devoid of aggression can still fall into the HIB classification and require the same administrative procedures. Depending on your district’s policy, a finding that your child perpetrated an act of HIB may go on their permanent record.
Another mandatory component of your district’s anti-bullying policy will be the HIB investigation procedure. The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights requires staff to report instances of suspected HIB immediately to the principal, who in turn must notify the parents of all the parties involved. The district must have an anti-bullying specialist who must conduct an investigation and report to the Superintendent, usually within in ten days of the report. The Superintendent must give a report to the Board of Education, which will either approve, reject, or modify the Superintendent’s report. Twice a year, the school district must report the number of HIB investigations undertaken and the outcome of each to the State.