By TALIA WIENER
wiener@montclairlocal.news

Two Montclair public schools failed to meet Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act standards during the 2020-21 school year — falling short on requirements for professional development and providing enough anti-bullying personnel — according to self-assessments presented by the district earlier this month.

But recommendations from the district’s anti-bullying coordinator are intended to better equip schools with increased support for students and staff, including additional anti-bullying specialists and a dedicated anti-bullying coordinator.

School safety and climate teams at each school completed the self-assessments, Marcos Vargas, the school system’s director of humanities and anti-bullying coordinator, said at a March 21 Montclair Board of Education meeting

Each school was rated on a total of 26 different indicators of compliance with the anti-bullying law, with scores from zero to three. The highest possible score is a 78, but a score of 52 means that school is meeting the minimum standards, Vargas said.

The indicators fall under eight core elements, which cover programming, training on policy and procedures, curriculum, personnel, incident reporting and investigation procedures. The district did not present the complete self-assessments for each school.

Hillside School and Glenfield Middle School fell short of the standard, with scores of 42 and 51, respectively. Other schools scored in the 60s to low 70s. Three schools — Renaissance at Rand Middle School, Hillside School and Northeast School — received scores lower than in the 2019-20 school year assessments.

For some schools, such as Hillside, which dropped nine points, the assessment revealed the difficulty of remote learning and an abbreviated school schedule, Vargas said. Schools struggled to find time to hold required professional development sessions, he said. 

“During the height of the pandemic and remote instruction, we were of course keeping as much time for instruction as possible,” he said. “So some of those professional development and training opportunities were not really available during that time period.” 

Another area of the assessment, focused on anti-bullying specialists, was a challenge for schools, he said. The district employs 11 specialists, one at each school, Vargas told Montclair Local. When specialists became sick or had to quarantine, some schools had delays in their responses to bullying, he said. And when the district returned to in-person learning, there was an uptick in harassment, bullying and intimidation cases, he said. Specialists were busy with the workload at their own schools, and were not always able to step in at other schools to help out. 

But when it came to scoring, some schools were more critical of themselves than others, Vargas said.

“In some of these cases, I felt that the schools were a bit harsh,” he said. “But I did not want to tinge their self-assessments, and I wanted them to be as reflective and true to how they felt.” 

Meanwhile, some schools recorded scores several points higher than the year prior, and Vargas vouched for those increases. At Nishuane, where the score increased by eight points, staff regularly reached out to the school’s anti-bullying specialist to review cases and made an effort to teach students about harassment, intimidation and bullying, he said. 

As part of the self-assessment reports to the state, Vargas issued districtwide and school-level recommendations based upon the scores. 

One of his top recommendations was more personnel. He recommended two trained anti-bullying specialists at each school, as opposed to the one at each school now. He also recommended a dedicated districtwide anti-bullying coordinator; a listing for that position was posted to the district’s job openings site in January. Vargas has held the position since September 2020 but also serves as director of humanities for the district. 

He also recommended additional professional development and training for staff, additional age-appropriate instruction for students on harassment, intimidation and bullying for students and more support for school safety and climate teams. 

“Schools clamor for and they require and they deserve greater support,” Vargas said. “That support may sometimes look as simple as a principal requesting a specific training, which we can often provide.”

The self-assessments have been submitted to the New Jersey Department of Education, which will send back its own grades for each school and the district, based upon the self-assessments. That process usually takes between one and two months, Vargas said. 

For the most part, the state scores will mirror the scores provided by the schools, he said. However, if a school had two consecutive years of decreasing scores, the state may remove further points.

A school that receives a low score must work to mitigate the reasons for its score, Vargas told Montclair Local. There is no financial repercussion for a low score — schools are still eligible for normal funding, he said. 

“One of the real benefits of these self-assessments is that it does hold a mirror to us,” Vargas said. “We learned, while completing the assessment, that our schools have areas to focus on.”