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Reversal of bullying charge

N.J. official overruled Salem County district's finding.

Two years after enactment of New Jersey's strict anti-bullying law, state Education Commissioner Chris Cerf has for the first time reversed a district's finding of bullying, saying the case was simply a more innocent conflict between two students.

In a decision handed down in late April and posted last week, Cerf found that the Pittsgrove Township School District's charge against an eighth grader identified as C.H. ran counter to the new law. The student had been accused of bullying after a February 2012 incident in which he shoved a piece of crumpled paper down a classmate's shirt.

In a case that involved countercharges of bullying and at least three investigations, the district in Salem County said C.H. meant to antagonize the other student and was "disturbing the learning environment and causing emotional harm."

Cerf upheld Administrative Law Judge W. Todd Miller's ruling that although there was an ongoing conflict between the students, the incident did not amount to bullying or harassment as defined in the law.

"The conflict between these students did not contain the serious and aggravating elements necessary to a finding of bullying . . .; and the factual record only supports a finding of ordinary student conflict rather than the more serious behavior of bullying," a synopsis of the decision said.

The decision touched on what has become a dispute over where to draw the line between a fight or disagreement and bullying.

The law defines bullying as a conflict based on characteristics such as appearance, race, or ethnicity, but schools have struggled with pinpointing such motives among what are sometimes young students.

"Shoving a piece paper down a student's shirt is a common and immature prank, much like a child who puts ice or snow down someone's shirt," Miller wrote in his March ruling.

"It does not have the aggravating characteristics of malice or intent to significantly disgrace or harm (i.e. bullying), but remains unacceptable behavior. More to the point, however, is, as outlined below; this prank was motivated by the ongoing conflict between the students."

Miller also noted that C.H. had accused the other student of bullying him, a claim that he said was not totally discounted.

"It is clear from the district's own investigation that C.H. was on the receiving end of some antagonistic behavior that was initiated by either Bobby, other students, or a combination of both," he wrote. "There was an element of 'mutuality' even if C.H. was the more dominant actor."

Still, it was the first time under the new law the commissioner had sided with a family appealing a bullying claim. Over the winter, Cerf rejected similar appeals in two separate cases in Tenafly and East Brunswick.

In one case, a sixth grader had called another "gay" and said he "danced like a girl." The other case stemmed from an incident in which a fourth grader called out a classmate for having head lice.

As of the end of April, at least 16 cases had been appealed to the commissioner, according to the state.