Thank you, Chairwoman Jasey, Chairman Cryan and members of the Joint Committee on the Public Schools. My name is David Nash, and I am the Director of Legal Education and National Outreach for the Foundation for Educational Administration, which is the sister organization and professional development arm of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association. In my role, I oversee LEGAL ONE, which provides professional development for school leaders, educators, parents, and other key stakeholders on critical and emerging school law issues.
Since the passage of the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights in 2011, we have provided more training related to the issue of bullying prevention than any other topic. In fact, we have conducted more than 400 training sessions on this topic alone, including in-person and virtual workshops and webinars, with more than 10,000 participants representing a majority of New Jersey school districts. In addition, more than 15,000 individuals, including current and aspiring school leaders and educators, have completed one or more of our self-paced courses addressing this topic.
KEY THEMES THAT HAVE EMERGED OVER THE PAST DECADE
During these trainings, we have had the opportunity to work closely with those on the front lines in the effort to provide a safe and supportive learning environment for all students. Over time, certain consistent themes have emerged during these trainings that I believe can be helpful to you as you consider ways to strengthen New Jersey’s safety net for all students and reduce the prevalence of harassment, intimidation and bullying in our schools.
These themes include:
- A unifying commitment from all stakeholders, including parents, students, school leaders, counselors, educators, and school board members, to keep our children safe; • Frustration among some parents and students that New Jersey’s very specific legal definition of harassment, intimidation, and bullying does not always coincide with the common understanding of the word “bullying,” which requires specific elements such as a motivating characteristic, substantial disruption, and a showing of specific harm; • A misguided sense that if behavior does not meet New Jersey’s HIB definition, that it is not being taken seriously by school officials, when in fact school officials take other issues such as code of conduct violations and student conflict just as seriously; • A misperception among some that schools are not doing anything to address HIB incidents when in fact school officials are constantly investigating and responding to confirmed HIB allegations, but are unable to share the specifics of those responses due to state and federal confidentiality laws;
- A misunderstanding about the many complex factors that impact student mental health and wellbeing, and may lead to suicidal ideation, that go well beyond a direct cause and effect linked to bullying:
- A lack of understanding of the respective roles of law enforcement and school officials in bullying matters that may spill over into potential criminal behaviors.
- A concern among school leaders and educators about the “hidden costs” that are imposed given the significant time and resources that go into HIB investigations, and the inability of staff involved in those investigations to address other critical responsibilities, a concern which is further exacerbated by the staffing shortages facing our schools; and
- The lack of effective pre-service education for aspiring school leaders and educators on a wide range of topics, including bullying prevention, conducting effective student investigations, threat assessment, and addressing student mental health needs.
In addition, as you just heard from Principal Aaron Eyler, recent trends have created even greater challenges for school leaders and other stakeholders working to keep our students safe. These include:
- A significant increase in mental health needs for students, which is a national phenomenon and is borne out in the latest data from the CDC Youth Risk Behavior Survey, coupled with a lack of access to critical and ongoing mental health services for students and families beyond what can be provided in our schools;
- An erosion of social s skills for students related in large part to the impact of the COVID pandemic;
- An ever-increasing sophistication among our students about how to use social media and electronic communications in increasingly harmful ways, and to shield or disguise their identity in the process, and
- A toxic national conversation on issues such as race, gender identity, and immigration status that has sent confusing signals to students that often undermine the work of schools to address issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion and set a positive, mutually respectful school environment.
RECENT REVISIONS TO STATE LAW
With the signing of a revised bullying law in January of 2022, important new provisions were put into place that are now in their first year of implementation. These changes include:
- New prevention and accountability tools for our courts, our schools and parents of victims to use in response to incidents of cyberbullying that meet New Jersey’s definition of the crime of cyber-harassment;
- Standardized statewide reporting forms that will make reporting suspected HIB incidents more uniform across the state;
- Heightened scrutiny and due process rights surrounding decisions to make preliminary determinations related to alleged HIB incidents;
- New requirements related to tracking HIB incidents in student records and implementing Student Intervention Plans for students who commit three or more incidents of HIB; and
- The creation of a new School Climate Coordinator position at the state level to provide ongoing resources and support for parents and school officials related to bullying prevention and school climate.
While there is no simple fix to overcome these challenges, there are important steps that can be taken by policymakers, such as:
- Ensuring effective implementation of New Jersey’s 4S initiative, so that we are removing the significant obstacles that are faced in trying to connect students and families with both emergent and ongoing mental health supports;
- Implementing key recommendations and exploring further incentives and supports to help ease the shortages that school districts are facing in critical personnel areas; • Insisting that institutions of higher education do more to prepare aspiring school leaders and educators on key issues such as bullying prevention, conducting investigations, and supporting student mental health;
- Exploring legislative means to hold social media companies accountable for working with school officials to remove harmful content, including efforts to urge Congress to act at the federal level;
- Providing funding to support the ongoing professional learning needs of school districts to equip staff to address all of the challenges we have discussed; and
- Monitoring the impact of recent revisions to the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights and considering the recommendations from the Anti-Bullying Task Force that has recently been appointed and will complete its work later this year
Thank you for the opportunity to discuss this critical issue and for your ongoing efforts to ensure a safe and supportive learning environment for all students.