School Board Notes • January 29, 2013 • Vol. XXXVI No. 25

Commissioner Issues First Anti-Bullying Decisions

The education commissioner’s first two decisions under the state’s new Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act were issued last week. One case dealt with a Tenafly boy who publicly identified another student with head lice, and the other case involved an East Brunswick sixth grader who called a classmate "gay" and said he "danced like a girl."

In both cases, the school district’s response was found to have been appropriate.

The Tenafly case stems from an incident in September 2011. After the school nurse had sent home a letter to parents about an occurrence of head lice, a fourth-grade boy deduced who the child with head lice was and he told other classmates that she had dyed her hair because of the head lice.

The boy was found to have violated the district’s anti-bullying policy by embarrassing and offending her, and he was given a writing assignment to encourage greater sensitivity. The boy’s parents were informed in writing. The school did not impose any other discipline, nor did the incident go on the child’s record.

However, the disciplined boy’s parents sued the district, asking for a written apology from the district; ensure there was no reference of the incident on the boy’s student record; $50,000 for emotional distress; and compensation for legal fees.

The disciplined boy defended his conduct by stating that he was simply telling the truth and that he did not intend to hurt the girl’s feelings. School officials said the boy should have realized that pointing out his classmate’s problem would hurt her feelings, and district officials said they were following the requirements set forth under the state’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act. Enacted in 2011, the anti-bullying law requires schools to implement policies regarding harassment, intimidation or bullying of students belonging to a protected group (i.e., race, gender, disability, etc.) or due to a "distinguishing characteristic."

An administrative law judge recommended to the commissioner of education that the board’s motion to dismiss the case be granted. On Jan. 10 Commissioner of Education Christopher Cerf upheld the administrative law judge’s recommendation.

The commissioner’s ruling noted that "school districts are required by law to adopt comprehensive policies that prohibit HIB, outline expectations for student behavior, set forth consequences for inappropriate behavior, and create procedures for reporting HIB concerns; and these policies are intended to commence at the earliest ages so that children will know that mutual respect is the expectation and that cruel words will not be tolerated in New Jersey public schools."

East Brunswick Case Commissioner Cerf ruled on Jan. 9 in a matter that occurred in East Brunswick. The case stemmed from an incident in November 2011, when a sixth-grade boy ridiculed a classmate in gym class by saying he "danced like a girl" and calling him "gay."

School officials followed the district’s anti-bullying policies and procedures. The boy admitted he insulted the student in gym class, and he was given a three-day detention.

The disciplined boy’s parents challenged the decision, calling for the school to "drop" its charges; that the school award them punitive damages and legal expenses; and that the classmate who accused their son of harassment be given the same punishment of three days’ detention.

After reviewing the administrative law judge’s recommendation, the education commissioner found that the disciplined boy’s actions were "motivated by distinguishing characteristics, i.e., gender and sexual orientation." The discipline was designed to redirect the boy’s behavior "in a manner that was consistent with his age and that recognized this was his first offense," the commissioner’s ruling added.

Plaintiffs have 45 days to appeal the commissioner’s decision to the Appellate Division of Superior Court.