TRENTON — The Legislature must "put its money where its mouth is" to keep the New Jersey’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights intact, a state panel ruled today in a decision that said the new law poses an unfunded mandate for school districts.
The little-known Council on Local Mandates ruled, 7-2, that the anti-bullying law, which in September set forth new requirements for some 600 school districts, imposes costs for things like staffing and training without providing money to pay for them.
The decision takes effect once the council’s written ruling is issued, in about 60 days, Chairman John A. Sweeney said. Council members said they supported the intent of the anti-bullying legislation — considered the toughest such law in the country — but said that if the Legislature does not act by the time the ruling takes effect, the unfunded sections of the law will expire.
"We hope in 60 days the Legislature will get the message ... so this becomes a funded mandate," said Council Member Sharon L. Weiner, one of the two dissenters. "We don’t want the message to go out that this council does not support anti-bullying legislation. We just say the state should put its money where its mouth is."
Supporters wasted no time leaping to defend the law, saying they believe there is middle ground.
"For the countless students subjected to bullying day in and day out, this decision is devastating," said Assemblywoman Valerie Vanieri Huttle (D-Bergen), lead sponsor of the law who vowed to "fine-tune the legislation to make it work."
She said she does not believe funds are available now because of the "economic climate."
Steven Goldstein of Garden State Equality, a gay rights organization that championed the law, said the ruling did not affect the entire law. He said it leaves intact the definition of bullying, for example, and a timeline for handling bullying complaints.
Justin Barra, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said his department will review the decision and determine "how we can best keep our students safe.
"We all agree that we must create safe learning environments and protect all of our students from harassment, intimidation and bullying," Barra said.
The Council on Local Mandates was created under the "State Mandate, State Pay" amendment to the New Jersey Constitution approved by voters in November 1995. It has sole authority to rule on whether a state law or regulation is an "unfunded mandate." There is no process for appeal.
Today’s decision arose after the Warren County school district of Allamuchy, with just over 400 students, challenged the anti-bullying law. District officials said it has them at least $6,000 for training so far and caused "a reallocation of significant district financial resources from student learning."
Five other districts passed resolutions supporting Allamuchy’s effort.
Allamuchy school board President Francis Gavin, a former attorney, argued the district’s case today.
Gavin asked the council to declare four provisions of the law to be an unfunded mandate. The provisions required school districts to:
•?Establish bullying prevention programs for school staff, volunteers and others.
•?Create new positions of anti-bullying specialist and anti-bullying coordinator.
•?Create school safety teams.
•?Require counseling and other services "once an incident of harassment, intimidation or bullying is identified."
The law created a "Bullying Prevention Fund," Gavin said, but when Allamuchy tried to apply, it was told there was no money in it.
Deputy Attorney General Daniel Dryzga said the Department of Education provided training resources, at no cost, that the district could have used.
In an interview after the ruling was issued, Gavin said he thought the law could be saved.
"I think they need to craft better legislation. I can see that happening," he said, referring to state legislators. "Is there a better way to do this (combat bullying) without having to incur all these costs?"
The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights revised an early bullying law. The new measure was spurred, in part, by the suicide in 2010 of a Rutgers University freshman whose roommate allegedly spied on him with a webcam during an intimate encounter with another man.