Are These Comments Bullying? NJ Spends 5 Years on Question
HADDONFIELD — The comments were horrible, no doubt about it.
"You're mean. I hate you. You should die," one social media post addressed to a seventh grade girl began. It continued.
"Stop trying to be popular. You're ugly. You're fat. Only losers like you. I wish I could kill you. You're annoying. No popular people like you."
And for good measure: "Bitch skanky hoe bag."
According to the Haddonfield Middle School anti-bullying specialist and the principal, the comments did not amount to bullying. The parents of the seventh-grade girl, however, disagreed and appealed — launching a bureaucratic process that has lasted five years and counting.
In 2010, New Jersey passed an anti-bullying law that required school officials to investigate and act on complaints or suspicions of bullying or harassment. The rules were meant to provide immediate relief for students being tortured by peers to the point of truancy or even suicide.
But in practice, many districts have run afoul of the law by failing to follow the right steps in the right order. Appeals have dragged on for years, sometimes long enough for the students involved to graduate from high school.
In this case, the commissioner of education this month ordered the Haddonfield Board of Education to hold a hearing on the bullying complaint and afford the girl's parents an opportunity to plead their case.
The social media posts were written in the spring of 2013. An administrative law judge's decision in April noted that after the school determined that the comments were not bullying, the principal proposed that the students sit at different lunch tables and meet with a counselor. The principal's conclusions were accepted by the Board of Education at a meeting.
The administrative law judge, however, noted that the law requires the school board to wait until it's next meeting after receiving a report before issuing a decision in order to allow the students' parents an opportunity to request a hearing — something that did not happen in this case.
The administrative law judge also faulted the district for allowing the principal to issue a written decision, which should come from the school board.
The judge in April recommended that the school board hold a hearing and then issue a proper written report. That recommendation was adopted this month by the commissioner, who will not hear the parents' appeal until that process is followed.
Because the appeals have dealt with procedure, there has been no discussion as to whether the comments did in fact constitute bullying.
This is how the law defines "harassment, intimidation and bullying:
"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 [...]
"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."
When an allegation of bullying is reported to the school principal, the school's anti-bullying specialist must launch an investigation within a day. The investigation should take no more than 10 days to complete.
The investigative findings have to be reported to the district superintendent and the Board of Education. Parents may request a private hearing before the board and parents can appeal a school board's decision to the state education commissioner.
Public and charter schools reported 6,416 incidents of bullying in the 2016-17 school year, up from 5,995 the year before.