Monday, September 23, 2013
Just last week, I posted on a Connecticut court rejecting a student's cause of action under the state's anti-bullying statute. In contrast, the Old Bridge School Board in New Jersey settled an anti-bullying case for 60,000 last week. New Jersey's anti-bullying law is considered the toughest in the nation. It was a response to the public outcry over the suicide of Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University, in 2010. The explicit mandates and clarity of the New Jersey law seems to have made all the difference.
This clarity has a huge upside statewide. Knowing the risks of litigation, districts will respond quicker and more effectively to bullying. Those who do not will suffer the consequences. The trouble is discerning what amounts to "bullying" around the margins. All "bullying" is serious and I, in no way, mean to minimize it. Schools should be held accountable for the failure to stop it. But some schools overreact and punish behavior that is not bullying. From many schools' perspective, it is better to be safe (as in not get sued) than sorry. This is the same approach we saw schools take with zero tolerance policies on weapons and drugs, which has lead to the expulsion of children with finger clips, butter knives in their lunch boxes, and tylenol in their purse. New Jersey has apparently already seen some potential overreactions/over-broad applications with bullying. None of this is to find flaw in the law, but to point out the potential serious downside of applying laws without a good dose of common sense and judgment. Unfortunately, those dreaded professional development workshops might be of some use here.