Lawmakers Wrestle with Troubling Topic: Sexual Abuse at School

June 1, 2018

It was an unusual hearing by nearly all accounts, a hastily called joint session of two state Senate committees to hear startling accusations that too many of the state’s educators — and their unions — might look the other way on child sexual abuse within their own ranks. 

But after more than three hours of testimony before the Senate education and labor committees, what concrete measures will come out of the session was hard to discern.

What was obvious, however, was the catalyst for the noontime gathering, a widely circulated videotape by conservative provocateur James O’Keefe, who has had the unions — specifically the New Jersey Education Association — in his crosshairs for years. 

Released last month, the hidden-camera video showed two local NJEA leaders, one from Hamilton, the other from Union City, dismissing — if not covering up — claims of sexual abuse made against their teachers.

In the aftermath, the two union leaders each forced to resign from their positions, but lawmakers from both sides of the aisle jumped on the scandal, calling for greater accountability and reforms statewide.

Those calls came to the fore yesterday. State Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, the Democratic chair of the Senate Education Committee, opened the hearing by calling the videos “disturbing” and “alarming,” and demanded that reforms be enacted to prevent such negligence in the future.

The NJEA responded to questions for close to an hour, balancing on a tightrope between the defensive and the diplomatic. 

On one hand, it decried what it called O’Keefe’s “gotcha” tactics. On the other, conceded it was hard to argue with the video evidence that its members did wrong. 

“We recognize that despite the dishonest tactics used to obtain and edit the videos, some of what was said on them appeared to fall far short of our values and the standards we set for our union, its leaders, and its members,” said Edward Richardson, executive director of the NJEA and the top union officer to testify.

NJEA plans full investigation

Richardson announced that the union had enlisted its counsel to conduct a full investigation of its field offices and local affiliates to ensure such practices are not widespread or repeated. 

“Specifically, we want to ensure every NJEA affiliate leader and every NJEA staff member understands the obligation to report suspected child abuse and knows how to make that report,” Richardson said.

But there already is a wide array of statutes and regulations in place that — at least on paper — require immediate reporting of abuse to child protection services. The question is how strictly those regulations are enforced and what are the repercussions for those who fail to report such suspicions.

Parsing the language of the law

State Sen. Fred Madden, chair of the labor committee, pressed whether a teacher “shall” be brought up on tenure charges for failing to report an abuse suspicion or “may” be brought up on charges.

Yesterday, Madden questioned Gov. Phil Murphy’s new education commissioner, Lamont Repollet, about tightening the rules or at least ensuring they are being closely enforced and monitored.

The state has made significant strides in just the past few months, Madden said, enacting a new law to prevent teachers accused of misconduct from transferring to other districts. But he said more needed to be done. 

“Why would that be not be that [certification] shall be revoked?” Madden asked. “Otherwise, it indicates to me that these people could be found guilty of these violations, and still retain their certificate.”

Repollet responded that the state acts aggressively when teachers are found guilty of misconduct. He said that in 2016 – 2017, three teachers lost their certification for child endangerment, 28 for sexual misconduct. So far this school year, he said, four had been revoked for endangerment and 16 for sexual misconduct.

“This department is vigilant about its obligation to protect students from any educator misconduct,” Repollet said to the committees. 

What else can be done?

Nonetheless, the question remained about what specific measures could be put in place that didn’t exist already. One testimony that grabbed lawmakers’ attention came from Shelley Skinner of Better Education for Kids, one of the groups that initially called for the hearings.

She pointed to rules in states like Pennsylvania and Nevada, which require teachers be trained in identifying and reporting sexual abuse before they are licensed.

“Given the amount of sacred trust we place in our school personnel, breaking that trust should come with stiffer consequences for the few who do,” Skinner said. 

Ruiz said several of the recommendations would be taken under consideration. “I think out of these committees will be a package of bills that will seek to ameliorate these issues,” she said after the hearing. 

When asked what specific measures, Ruiz said required training would be included as well as measures to provide families and educators more options and awareness for reporting abuse. 

“The more parents and children are aware on how to report abuse, the better the outcomes will be,” she said.

Christie tells crowd at Cape May Airport he plans to make failing teachers re-earn tenure

April 12, 2011

LOWER TOWNSHIP — Gov. Chris Christie brought his case for education reform to a cavernous airport hangar Tuesday, warning the state’s entire budget hinges on the issue.

He laid out plans to make failing career teachers re-earn their tenure if they flunk assessment, and said any court ruling to restore education funding to earlier levels would lead to drastic cuts in other government programs.

Surrounded by fighter planes dating to World War II that are housed at the Aviation Museum, Christie said he would fight the New Jersey Education Association teachers union, which he called a “bully,” and the “lawyers in black robes” on the state Supreme Court, who have been advised his cuts to school funding are unconstitutional.

As an anticipated state Supreme Court ruling threatens to invalidate Christie’s past and future cuts to education, Christie said Tuesday that the court should rule to change the state’s school-funding formula, which spends an uneven amount of money on urban schools versus suburban ones. Christie called the formula “a failed theory.”

But if the court rules against his education cuts, Christie said the administration would have to look to large programs such as municipal aid to pay about $1.6 billion more to schools.

Of the $25 billion spent by the state on K-12 education, $10 billion comes from income tax, he said. “The rest, $15 billion, comes from your property taxes,” he went on.

Running down the failure rates of urban school districts, he said, “The results we’re getting, they’re not what we’re paying for.”

Christie said he plans to hold failing teachers accountable. Currently, district heads are terrified to fire bad teachers, he said. “Tenure proceedings cost hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Christie said.

In a three-point proposal to change tenure rules, he said teachers should no longer have the right to infinite protection after three years of seniority.

If teachers are assessed as needing improvement, they would have to improve performance before their tenure would be restored.

And he said those teacher assessments would take into account student test scores, but would also factor in a teacher’s adherence to good working practices.

But he made no secret — and made several jokes about — the pushback from the teachers union, which he said has $130 million a year to spend on lobbying and advertising their position.

“They say it’s the greatest attack on the state of public education in the history of New Jersey, to demand accountability,” he said.

He attacked the NJEA’s use of its war-chest to influence Trenton politicians. Comparing Trenton to a school yard, he said, “When you have got $130 million, and you’re used to buying everything you want, either by good favor or intimidation, you’re standing there in the middle of the school yard with your chest puffed out.”

School districts, children and taxpayers were the children rolling on the school-yard bleeding, he said. But other politicians had gone to the union and chosen to “whisper in their ear,” Christie said.

“I have a different approach,” he said. To the bully, he said, “I say: You punch them, I punch you.” Christie acknowledged the battle to change education is in places unpopular.

“If this is what takes me down as governor, at least I went down having a fight that was good and right and moral,” he said.

Atlantic City, Vineland

Christie took questions from the crowd, and was quickly asked about his efforts to revive Atlantic City.

Christie has set out to put Atlantic City’s casinos and key attractions in a state-run district, and also has acted to reduce regulation of casinos in an effort to save those gaming operators money and boost business.

Mahmoud Mahmoud, who said he owns a hotel in Wildwood, asked Christie why he spends so much attention on Atlantic City.

“Could we just get a little bit?” Mahmoud asked.

Christie laid out his reasons for the policies on Atlantic City, enacted in February.

“When Atlantic City was going great guns, it was an ATM machine for the state,” he said.

He said he could have let it live or die on its own.

But with billions of dollars of investment there, he said, “I felt we need to take one last chance to turn it around.”

He said he had dismantled the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority because of its low investment in marketing.

The Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, the new operators of the state-run district that will be defined later this month, will end up spending eight times more on marketing in the future, he said. At the same time, the CRDA revenue will now remain in southern New Jersey, he said.

“It’s time to stop milking the cow down here and taking the milk,” he said of CRDA revenue going all over the state in the past.

Of the plan, he said, “I can’t guarantee it’ll work.”

Increased marketing and investment will benefit neighboring shore towns, he said.

“I more look at this as a regional issue,” Christie said. “We all like to think of our towns. “But in an era of limited resources, we need to invest regionally.”

To Mahmoud’s request for a little attention, Christie added with a smile, “Everyone’s always asking for just a little bit.”

Christie said his budget proposes closing the Vineland Developmental Center, in Cumberland County.

While medical experts say many patients who need long-term care do better in group homes than institutions, New Jersey institutionalizes more patients than any other state, he said.

On the closing, “My mind is 98 percent made-up.”

Crowded room

At the beginning of his speech, Christie took a moment to look around the hangar, grinning. Looking up at the wings and bellies of fighter jets and helicopters standing high off the ground, he said, “This is the best town hall setting ever.”

It was Christie’s second town hall meeting in southern New Jersey in two weeks. He was in Hammonton on March 29.

But some of the standing-room only crowd, who numbered more than 650, wished for a little more space.

Louis Boharsik, a retired teacher, said: “They should take some of these planes outta here.”

Christie plans to follow up his focus on education at Tuesday’s town- hall meeting with a news conference on education at 11 a.m. today with acting education commissioner Christopher Cerf.