On Thursday, Feb. 15, the General Assembly convened its first voting session of the 2018-2019 legislative session. Among the measures passed by the Assembly was a package of bills intended to prevent sexual abuse, misconduct and harassment among public school employees and students. Three of the bills would direct school districts to incorporate education on these issues into the curriculum, while the fourth requires schools to ensure job applicants have no history of sexual abuse or misconduct before they can be hired.

Sexual Abuse and Assault AwarenessA-769 requires each school district to incorporate age-appropriate sexual abuse and assault awareness and prevention education in grades preschool through 12 as part of the district’s implementation of the New Jersey Student Learning Standards in Comprehensive Health and Physical Education. The bill directs the commissioner of education, in consultation with the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault, Prevent Child Abuse New Jersey, and other entities with relevant expertise, to develop age-appropriate sample learning activities and resources. The commissioner would provide these materials to school districts to implement this requirement. The bill also provides that a teaching staff member may satisfy in each professional development cycle one or more hours of the professional development requirement established by the State Board of Education through participation in training programs on sexual abuse and assault awareness and prevention.

“Sexting” EducationA-2189 requires a board of education to include instruction on the social, emotional, and legal consequences of distributing sexually explicit images through electronic means, a practice commonly referred to as “sexting,” once during the middle school grades in an appropriate place in the curriculum as part of the district’s implementation of the New Jersey Student Learning Standards in Comprehensive Health and Physical Education.

Sexual Consent InstructionA-2190 requires a school district to incorporate instruction in grades six through 12 on the law and meaning of consent for physical contact and sexual activity as part of the district’s implementation of the New Jersey Student Learning Standards in Comprehensive Health and Physical Education. The instruction is to be designed to increase discussion and awareness that consent is required before physical contact or sexual activity, as well as the social, emotional, and relational impact surrounding sexuality, the right to say no to unwanted physical contact or sexual activity, and the virtues of respecting the right of others to say no.

If approved by the Senate and signed into law by the governor, the three bills would go into effect in the first full school year following enactment.

Protecting Students from Sexual Abuse and Misconduct The Assembly also unanimously approved S-414/A-3188, which requires school districts, charter schools, nonpublic schools, and contracted service providers (“employers”) to review the employment history of prospective employees to ascertain allegations of child abuse or sexual misconduct. It explicitly prohibits such employers from hiring a person serving in a position which involves regular contact with students unless the employer conducts a review of the employment history of the applicant by contacting former and current employers and requesting information regarding child abuse and sexual misconduct allegations.

When seeking employment in a school setting, applicants will be required to answer three questions regarding whether the applicant has ever:

  1. Been the subject of any child abuse or sexual misconduct investigation by the employer, law enforcement, or any state agency (unless the allegations were false or the incident was not substantiated);
  2. Been disciplined, discharged, non-renewed, asked to resign, etc. while allegations were pending/under investigation, or due to an adjudication/finding; or
  3. Had a license/certification suspended while allegations pending/under investigation, or due an adjudication/finding.

A prospective employer would then be required to contact the applicant’s former employers (limited to those with whom the applicant had an employment relationship in the previous 20 years) in order to ascertain whether the applicant’s answers to the questions above are accurate. If an applicant or previous employer provides an affirmative response to any of the questions, then the prospective employer would need to follow up with the previous employer and obtain additional information before making a hiring decision.

The bill also would prohibit confidential separation agreements between school districts and employees that would have the effect of suppressing any information related to investigations or findings of sexual misconduct or child abuse by an employee.

The NJSBA supports the legislation as it seeks to protect the health and well-being of New Jersey’s school-age children. The NJSBA did offer several amendments to the legislation, most of which were accepted by the sponsors, intended to help facilitate a smooth implementation. Such amendments include allowing an employer to hire an applicant on an emergent basis while conducting the review of his or her employment history; establishing a 20-year “lookback” limitation in reviewing an applicant’s employment history; and directing the NJDOE to play a more active role in providing assistance and guidance to employers and applicants.

The legislation now returns to the Senate, which unanimously passed a previous version of S-414, to concur with amendments made in the Assembly. If passed and signed into law by Governor Murphy, the bill would go into effect on the first day of the second month following enactment.

Budget Address to Be Delayed The Assembly also gave final passage to legislation that grants Governor Murphy an extra two weeks before he has to deliver his FY2019 proposed budget to the Legislature. The Legislature traditionally grants such an extension in the first year of a new governor’s first term. Specifically, A-2378/S-1248 extends the transmittal date deadline for the fiscal year 2018-2019 gubernatorial budget message to the Legislature from the fourth Tuesday in February to March 13, 2018. The delay in delivering the budget address means that school districts will receive their state aid figures later than normal this year. School aid numbers won’t be officially released until mid-March. The Commissioner of Education has the authority to push back the due date for district budget submissions and is expected to make that announcement shortly.

Committee Advances Repeal of Superintendent Salary Cap The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee also met on Thursday and approved legislation that would repeal the cap on school superintendent salaries that originally went into effect in 2011. The legislation, S-692, would explicitly prohibit the Department of Education from regulating the maximum salary that a school district may pay its chief school administrator. Over the past several years, the NJSBA has been advocating for repeal of the cap as the authority to set the compensation level of a superintendent should remain with the locally elected board of education. In testimony submitted to the committee, the NJSBA conveyed its support for S-692, which may now be posted for a floor vote in the Senate. The Assembly has yet to take up similar legislation this session.