After the January 2011 adoption of what is considered to be the nation’s strongest anti-bullying law, NJ Legislators scrambled to stave off a legal ruling that the law constitutes an unfunded mandate on local school districts. On March 26, 2012, Governor Christie signed A-2709, an amendment to the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights (ABR) that appropriates $1 million in grants for bullying prevention to be made available to districts by application and upon “affirmative demonstration” that free programs and services are not available for use.
The legislative action comes in response to a pending challenge before the Council on Local Mandates that ABR creates program and service mandates without providing sufficient funding to implement them. The Allamuchy school district is asking the Council to strike down several of the law’s requirements, including requirements that districts establish the positions of a district-wide Anti-Bullying Coordinator and a school-based Anti-Bullying Specialist, implement bullying prevention programs, and conduct anti-bullying training programs. On January 27, the Council announced that it would issue a ruling declaring the challenged parts of the law to be unfunded mandates in “about 60 days,” encouraging the Legislature to address the problem in the meantime.
The amended ABR now authorizes school districts to apply for grants from the NJ Department of Education to implement the law’s requirements, but “only after exploring bullying prevention programs and approaches that are available at no cost,” such as training available through the New Jersey State Bar Foundation.
The revised law also creates an Anti-Bullying Task Force (with members to be appointed within 30 days of the bill’s signing), whose role is to provide guidance to school districts on available resources to implement the ABR, examine implementation of the ABR, draft model regulations, and present recommendations regarding the ABR. The Task Force is directed to submit a report to the Commissioner, Governor, and Legislature within 180 days of its organizational meeting, as well as annually for the following three years, “on the effectiveness of the act in addressing bullying in schools.”
Proponents of the legislative amendments are hoping the new grant program will convince the Council to allow the ABR to remain in effect.
Left unspoken by Legislators in the debate over the lack of funds for the ABR are the substantial cuts to state school aid under the NJ school funding formula – the School Funding Reform Act of 2008 (SFRA) – since 2009. A recent ELC analysis documents a nearly $3 billion shortfall in state formula aid since 2009, with another round of significant underfunding proposed by Governor Christie in his FY13 State Budget now under consideration by the Legislature.
“The lack of funding to implement the ABR is the direct result of the failure to provide school districts across the state with the state school aid required by the SFRA,” said David G. Sciarra, ELC Executive Director. “Proper funding of the SFRA in the FY13 State Budget is the only way to ensure districts have sufficient resources to put in place the comprehensive anti-bullying measures under the ABR. Having districts apply for an extremely limited pot of grants in the Anti-Bullying Fund is a temporary band-aid that does not address the chronic, structural underfunding of our public schools in recent State Budget cycles.”
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