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.