Employers Should Review School Bully Laws

Imagine a place where a target of bullying can complain to a designated, trained management representative who is prepared to follow a clear protocol that is designed to immediately halt the bullying and to protect the target and witnesses from retaliation.

Imagine a place where supervisors are trained to achieve constructive and humane solutions to conflict.

The nation is mobilizing to protect school and college age targets of bullying and the protections listed above are becoming more commonplace.

According to the New York Times, 45 states have laws against bullying. However, these laws are intended primarily to protect students.

Clearly the public response to bullying is greatly influenced by the age of the target.  There appears to be less enthusiasm for efforts to protect workers and employees, possibly because of misguided fear of additional costs,  interference by the courts in private enterprise, and litigation. As a result, targets of workplace bullying  have little or no legal recourse, especially if they lack protected status under state and federal discrimination laws (which address discrimination on the basis of race, age, sexual and gender identity or disability).

School bullying laws effectively extend legal protections on the basis of  place (educational institution) rather than race or religion.  This is what workplace anti-bullying advocates seek – status blind protection for all workers who are targets of bullies in the workplace.

On Sept. 22, 2010, Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers, jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge; three days earlier, officials said, his roommate surreptitiously streamed video of him in an intimate encounter with another man. It remains unclear what role the video may have played in Mr. Clementi’s suicide but news coverage of the episode provided impetus to efforts to enact laws against bullying and harassment.

Just two months later, New Jersey’s legislature  – with just one dissenting vote – approved what is called the nation’s toughest law against bullying and harassment in schools. The bill was signed into law by NJ’s conservative Governor, Chris Christie. The law was endorsed by the NJ School Boards Association, which concluded that schools could largely carry it out with existing resources.

While a national campaign is underway to provide a civil remedy for workplace bullying, there are things employers can do now to address the problem.

School anti-bullying laws can not only provide guidance to states with respect to potential workplace anti-bullying legislation, they can  provide guidance to employers who want to take voluntary measures now to combat the problem.

Surveys  show that more than a third of employees say they are or have been bullied and many suffer severe psychological and physical health consequences. There is no question that workplace bullying costs U.S. employers billions each year – one estimate is $300 billion –  in higher health costs, absenteeism, poor morale, needless turnover, litigation, etc.

Even in the absence of a law, a diligent employer should review school antibullying laws with an eye to formulating voluntary policies to  halt workplace bullying.

According to NJ’s tough 2010 law,  the definition of “harassment, intimidation or bullying”  includes the creation of 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… .”

The law requires public schools to:

  • Establish bullying prevention programs or approaches.
  • A detailed procedure must be included in each district’s policy concerning the investigation of incidents of harassment, intimidation, or bullying;
  • Appoint specific people in each school and district to run antibullying programs.
  • Investigate any episodes starting within a day after they occur.
  • Train teachers, administrators and school board members to deal with bullying.
  • Each school district must form a school safety team in each school in the district to foster and maintain a positive school climate within the schools;
  • A school administrator who fails to initiate or conduct an investigation of an incident, or who should have known of an incident and fails to take action, is subject to discipline;
  • The superintendent of schools in each school district must appoint a district anti-bullying coordinator and sets forth the responsibilities of that individual;
  • Superintendents must make public reports twice a year detailing any episodes in each school, and each school will receive a letter grade to be posted on its Web site.
  • Harassment, intimidation or bullying is grounds for suspension or even expulsion from school.

“Other states have bits and pieces of what this New Jersey law has, but none of them is as broad, getting to this level of detail, and requiring them, step by step, to do the right thing for students,” said Sarah Warbelow, state legislative director at the Human Rights Campaign, a national gay rights group.

Imagine a workplace where a target of bullying can complain to a designated, trained management representative who is prepared to follow a clear protocol that is designed to immediately halt the bullying and to protect the target and witnesses from retaliation.

Imagine a workplace where supervisors are trained to achieve constructive and humane solutions to workplace conflict.

-PGB

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