Over the past two weeks, Gov. Phil Murphy and Acting Gov. Sheila Y. Oliver approved important education-related bills that were passed by the Legislature this past June.

One measure will incorporate mental health education into New Jersey public schools’ health class curriculum. Two new laws will address the educational rights and needs of deaf students.  The governor also signed a bill requiring the N.J. Department of Education (NJDOE) to establish a four-year pilot program testing later school start times for high school students. Legislation also amended the sex abuse liability standards in sexual abuse lawsuits filed against public entities and public employees.

A summary of each of the new laws follows below. Gov. Murphy signed all bills except for the measures concerning the rights of deaf students. Those bills were signed by Acting Gov. Oliver.

Mental Health Education S-2861/S-3081/A-4592/A-4446 (P.L.2019, c.222) will require school districts to ensure that health education programs for students in grades K-12 recognize the multiple dimensions of health by including mental health, and the relationship between physical and mental health, to enhance student understanding, attitudes, and behaviors that promote health, well-being, and human dignity.  The instruction in mental health must be adapted to the age and understanding of the students.  The instruction will also include information on substance abuse.

The new law also directs the State Board of Education to review and update the New Jersey Student Learning Standards in Comprehensive Health and Physical Education to ensure the incorporation of instruction in mental health in an appropriate place in the curriculum of students in grades kindergarten through 12. In its review, the State Board is directed to consult with mental health experts.

“We are striving to do all that we can to improve health and wellness for our students. By ensuring that children in grades K through 12 learn about mental health, we can promote a healthier future for New Jersey,” Gov. Murphy said upon signing the measures.

NJSBA supports the legislation.

“We thank Gov. Murphy and the bill sponsors for their work in this critical area,” said NJSBA Executive Director Dr. Lawrence S. Feinsod. “The NJSBA’s upcoming report on mental health services in the public schools, ‘Building a Foundation for Hope,’ supported this legislation. It is important that our students develop ways to cope with life’s challenges. Including mental health within the existing curriculum is a logical step.”

The law took effect immediately upon the governor’s signature and will first apply to the 2020-2021 school year.

Deaf Student’s Bill of Rights S-2044 (P.L.2019, c.204) establishes the “Deaf Student’s Bill of Rights,” recognizing that students who are deaf, hard of hearing, or deaf-blind have the same rights and potential as other students. This bill requires that school districts provide such students with the following:

  • Screening and assessment of hearing and vision capabilities, and communication and language needs, at the earliest possible age and the continuation of screening and evaluation services throughout a student’s education.
  • Early intervention to support the acquisition of solid language bases.
  • Information for parents concerning all placement considerations and options available, which will provide opportunities for parents and guardians to fully participate in the development and implementation of their child’s education plan.
  • Opportunities to learn advocacy skills, including self-advocacy.
  • Opportunities to meet and associate with their peers in the school environment and during school-sponsored activities.
  • Direct instruction.
  • A communication plan in the Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a plan prepared pursuant to section 504 of the federal Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
  • Placement that is best suited to the child’s individual needs including social, emotional, communication, and cultural needs, with consideration for the child’s age, degree and type of hearing loss, academic level, and mode of communication.
  • Full communication access to all programs in their educational settings.
  • Information for parents on the medical, ethical, cultural, and linguistic issues of individuals who are deaf, hard of hearing, or deaf-blind.

NJSBA successfully secured an amendment clarifying for school districts that these rights do not exceed the rights given under federal law.  The “Deaf Student’s Bill of Rights” goes into effect on Sept. 4, 2019.

Deaf Education Working Group  S-2045/A-1893 (P.L.2019, c.205) establishes a Working Group on Deaf Education, within the NJDOE, which will make recommendations on issues related to the early linguistic development of children who are deaf or hard of hearing. The working group will be required to issue a report including recommendations one year after the group is organized.

The bill further requires the NJDOE to work with the N.J. Department of Health (NJDOH) to create a parent resource guide for parents of deaf and hard of hearing children. In addition, the legislation requires both NJDOE and NJDOH to develop guidance on early intervention assessments and to communicate this guidance to school districts. The legislation also requires the NJDOE and NJDOH to collect and publicly report data on the language acquisition and developmental progress of children up to age five who are deaf or hard of hearing, on an annual basis. NJSBA supported the bill.

Later School Start Time Pilot S-3160/A-4865 (P.L.2019, c.224) establishes a four-year pilot program in the NJDOE on later school start times for high school students in selected school districts. It would study the issues, benefits, and options for instituting a later start time to the school day. The commissioner will select five school districts from urban, suburban, and rural areas of the state to participate in the pilot program.

“Research shows that academic progress may be negatively impacted by starting school too early,” Gov. Murphy said after approving the measure. “By testing the viability of changing start times, we are exploring ways to improve learning outcomes for New Jersey students.”

Education Commissioner Dr. Lamont Repollet added, “The pilot program on later start times for high school students will also allow the Department of Education” to study “how students and families would be impacted by changes to the school day.”

In 2017, the NJDOE released a report on later school start times.  The report was completed following the enactment of a 2015 law that required the NJDOE to study and make recommendations on the issue.  As part of its investigation of later school start times, the NJDOE convened a group of stakeholders, including John Burns, counsel in NJSBA’s government relations department, to examine the issues involved in creating later start times in middle schools and high schools.  The group made the following recommendations:

  • School start times should not be mandated by the New Jersey Legislature or the NJDOE. Any decision to pursue later school start times must be determined solely by local school districts and must be driven by locally-determined situations, conditions, and needs. Given the myriad characteristics, factors, and variables that distinguish school districts and schools from one another, communities should not be confronted with a “one-size fits all” school start-time mandate. The study group does, however, strongly recommend that school districts carefully review the issues attendant to later start times for middle schools and high schools.
  • The study group has determined that there is a sufficient number of middle schools and high schools currently implementing a later start time for the NJDOE to obtain ample implementation information without conducting a formal pilot study.
  • NJDOE should spend its time and resources gathering and providing information from districts/schools already implementing later start times and providing it to educators and families to guide their decision-making and implementation.
  • The NJDOE should publicize both this report, as well as its accompanying research on its website, so that parents and educators are informed about the negative impact of chronic sleep deprivation on adolescents.

A copy of the full report can be accessed here.

 Amendment to Sex Abuse Liability Standard  A-5392/S-3739 (P.L. 2019, c. 239) establishes new liability standards in sexual abuse lawsuits filed against public entities and public employees. The standards would require that the public employee’s conduct be willful, wanton or grossly negligent in order for liability to attach. The law makes the standards of liability the same for public agencies and non-profits. The law goes into effect on Dec. 1, 2019, the same day that P.L. 2019, c. 120 becomes operative which creates new, extended statute of  limitations periods for civil actions by child and adult victims of sexual abuse.

A child victim suit must be filed by the 55th birthday, or within seven years of discovering the injury, whichever date is later.  An adult victim suit must be filed within seven years of discovering the injury, and establishes a two-year window during which actions may be commenced even though they would otherwise be time-barred.