In a decision dated May 18, 2021, the New Jersey Commissioner of Education upheld a district’s procedures for handling harassment, intimidation and bullying (HIB) matters. The case involved an allegation that a teacher repeatedly made comments toward a student, suggesting that “cupcakes” or other snacks would make him move faster.
After the board of education upheld the charges against the teacher, the teacher filed a petition of appeal and the matter was transferred to the Office of Administrative Law, via the commissioner, for a hearing on the merits. The administrative law judge found procedural defects in the district’s process and remanded the matter for a new HIB hearing before the board of education. For example, the judge found that the district should have provided the petitioner the opportunity to review the HIB investigation report as well as the witness statements and the documentary evidence.
The commissioner adamantly disagreed with this and several other of the judge’s holdings, finding no procedural defects by the district and overturning the judge’s decision, remanding the matter back to the Office of Administrative Law for a hearing on whether the district’s finding was arbitrary or capricious. The commissioner also made it clear that the judge improperly remanded the matter back to the board for a hearing because the board had not made any procedural errors.
The commissioner referred specifically to the HIB requirements of N.J.S.A. 18A:37-15b(6)(c); 18A:37-15b(6)(d) and N.J.S.A. 18A:37-15b(6)(e). For example, N.J.S.A. 18A:37-15b(6)(c) requires certain notice to be provided to the parties. In summary, the parents of the student or an adult respondent are entitled to receive information about the investigation including the nature of the allegation, whether the district found evidence of the act and whether discipline was imposed to address the incident. That information should be provided within five school days after the results of the investigation are complete. The parent can then request a hearing before the board of education which will be held in executive session. At the hearing, the board may hear from the HIB specialist about the incident, the recommendations for discipline and/or services and suggestions for programs to reduce HIB. The commissioner found that the district complied with the above requirements.
Of particular importance was the commissioner’s finding that the “petitioner was not entitled to a trial-type adversarial hearing with an opportunity to cross-examine witnesses. The Act requires that the hearing be conducted in executive session and that the Board ‘may’ hear from the school anti-bullying specialist…” In the instant case, the petitioner had the opportunity to present her own witnesses and evidence to refute the allegations.
The commissioner’s decision goes on to discuss other procedural requirements and provide helpful guidance for districts handling HIB allegations moving forward. School board members are encouraged to read this case for the guidance it provides on the board’s obligations in such matters. More information on the case can be found here.
Questions regarding this matter should be discussed with the board attorney or with NJSBA’s Legal, Labor Relations and Policy Department at (609) 278-5254.