MONTVILLE, NJ – With the tragic suicide of Rockaway Township middle-schooler Mallory Grossman in the back of many parents’ minds, TAPinto Montville had a conversation with Superintendent of Schools René Rovtar to review Montville Township School District’s anti-bullying and HIB (harassment, intimidation and bullying) policy.

Having a HIB policy is dictated by the state and certain components are required, Rovtar said, so most districts’ policies are similar; there is a separate policy for cyber-bullying.

“At 18 pages, it’s probably the longest policy we have,” she said.

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HIB is defined as any gesture, written, verbal or physical act, or any electronic communication, whether it is a single incident or a series of incidents, that are motivated by perceived characteristics like race, color, religion, sexual orientation, or other factors; takes place on school property or a bus; substantially disrupts or interferes with the orderly operations of school; and creates a hostile educational environment for the student. (Note, this is an abbreviated version of the definition. Read the entire definition here.)

HIB protocol is the same for kindergarten through twelfth grade, Rovtar said, but what may be different is the range of consequences, which may include admonishing, detention or expulsion.

Instances or situations of bullying are brought to their attention by teachers or of course parents, she said. The information then goes to the building principal, she said. Teachers can fill out a report on behalf of parents, or parents can talk to the principal directly.

Director of Counseling Leslee Scheckman is the Anti-Bullying Coordinator for the district, and each building has an anti-bullying specialist who conducts investigations, Rovtar said, usually the counselors. The investigation is made over a ten-day period when the determination of HIB is made, at which time the report comes to her, Rovtar said.

During the investigation, no parents are involved, she said. Students are interviewed, plus any teachers are interviewed. If the parent has initiated the investigation, there is a form to fill out, and Rovtar said it’s very helpful to have as much detail and as many names as possible of people to talk to.

After the HIB report comes to Rovtar, she presents it in closed session to the Board of Education and makes a recommendation in support or rejection of an action on the report. The board passes a resolution to name the incident as HIB or not, and a letter is sent to the accused and the targeted pupils, informing them of the determination, Rovtar said. They are given the option of appealing the finding to the Board of Education, she said, which is also conducted in closed session.

“I tell them that if they have some factual information that supports their position as to why the decision is wrong, then they can come and share the information with the board,” she said. “The board passes a resolution upholding the finding or reversing it.”

“The problem with HIB, though, is that it reflects the law and how New Jersey defines bullying,” Rovtar said. “It focuses on perceived or actual characteristics – their race, gender and other factors. Parents’ definition is different, and it doesn’t meet the state’s definition. A mean person in the schoolyard doesn’t meet the state’s definition – it’s conflict. Parents have become more familiar with what HIB is in NJ, but there are still some misconceptions about how that word is used. There are these very subtle nuances about the differences. But if parents are not satisfied with the outcome of hearings, they can appeal to the State Office of Controversy and Disputes.”

When asked if parents should confront other parents about problems at the playground, Rovtar replied, “People have ascribed a lot of responsibility to schools and school districts. My mom would have called [the other parent]. I hope people could call respectfully and from a position of trying to come to common ground. I have no control over what happens outside of school. I don’t think it’s wrong for parents to address these things with other parents.”

When asked if parents should call the police over bullying matters, Rovtar said the district’s policy specifically states that they should.

“It’s our desire to have a safe environment for all our students and staff, but if there’s a situation in which our efforts are not 100 percent effective, I would always encourage parents to contact the police, particularly for things that happen outside the school setting. Our jurisdiction is very limited,” she said.

Regarding social media and cyber-bullying, Rovtar said, “We know we can’t police social media. The responsibility lies with the parents. We try, but we don’t have the kids under our control 24 hours a day. Some of the kids need additional guidance in terms of how to utilize the devices. The parents are the ones who give their kids the devices.”

Rovtar urged parents to reach out to their child’s school counselor if their student exhibits signs that they’re being bullied, like reluctance to go to school or constant stomach aches.

“Kids’ social interaction changes as the wind blows, and there are days when they just don’t want to go to school,” she said. “But this goes deeper than that. We can meet with the child and we have various resources. It’s important to get to the heart of the problem as early as possible before it becomes a bigger problem.”