Experts are debating the degree of harm that may have been done when two Mullica Township kindergarten students were unsupervised long enough to enter a bathroom together and take off their clothes.

The children may have been involved in normal curious behavior, or the situation could turn out to be more serious. The fate of the children’s teacher, who has been suspended with pay, may depend on whether any lasting harm was done.

So far, child development and early education experts said not enough information has been made public about the incident — in which the students told their teacher they were “having sex.” More details could help determine whether the veteran teacher, Kelly Mascio, was negligent in her oversight, they said.

“They may have just looked at each other. We don’t know,”said Rutgers University Camden Professor Tara Woolfolk, a social psychologist with a doctorate in human development and family studies. She said that kind of spontaneous act can occur very quickly, and it is normal behavior for that age.

“Then again, there could have been peer sexual abuse,” which would have indicated the incident was planned an aggressor, and may have required more time away from supervision, Woolfolk said.

If there was real harm to one or both students, a serious response from the administration would be more likely, said Kent Chrisman, a professor of Early Childhood Education at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania and co-author of “Healthy Sexuality Development,” published by the National Association for the Education of Young Children in Washington, D.C.

Chrisman said while early childhood educators are trained to monitor classrooms and keep a close eye on children, it is not uncommon for teachers to briefly lose track of young students.

“Certainly for kindergartners it is more challenging than for older kids. I’ve known of situations in which little kids walked out of room for a few minutes before the teacher became aware,” he said. “It’s not unheard of. Is it good practice? Absolutely not. Does it happen? Yes.”

Chrisman said he had not heard of teachers punished for such oversights, but there was no harm done to the children in those cases.

He said the early weeks of kindergarten require a huge adjustment as youngsters learn to adjust to classroom rules, particularly for children who didn’t attend pre-school.

Sexual play is common in young children, Chrisman said, and even if a kindergartner says he or she was “having sex,” it doesn’t mean the child understands what that means.

The Mullica incident happened in the first month of the school year when Mascio found the 5-year-olds in the classroom bathroom. She reported it immediately to a principal, who called police and state child protection officials.

Mascio has been suspended with pay since the Sept. 30 incident, and Superintendent Brenda Harring-Marro has filed tenure charges against her, the first step in an attempt to fire her, Mullica Township Education Association President Barbara Rheault has said.

The district will not discuss specific allegations made against Mascio, and neither will Mascio or her attorney. But Harring-Marro responded to questions with the following email:

“The District takes the health, safety and welfare of its students very seriously and of paramount concern. While we do not comment on personnel matters, the public reporting on this issue is both incomplete and inaccurate,” Harring-Marro wrote Tuesday. “To the extent any information is subject to public disclosure, its disclosure will occur in compliance with the law.”

Woolfolk said in such incidents she would want to know how many children the teacher was overseeing, and if an aide was present. The National Association for the Education of Young Children recommends a 1:10 ratio of adults to children in a classroom of 20 kindergarteners, up to a maximum of a 1:12 ratio for a classroom of 24.

Because more than 40 percent of the students in Mullica Township are eligible for free or reduced lunch, according to the New Jersey School Performance Report, state education code requires there be a teacher’s aide for each kindergarten classroom and a maximum class size of 21 students.

The district has not released information on Mascio’s class size or whether there was an aide assigned to the classroom.

The Board of Education met last Wednesday night in executive session to determine whether or not to certify the tenure charges, which would bring the issue before a state arbitrator to decide if Mascio can be fired. About 200 people came out in Mascio’s support, but the board refused to tell the public if it has certified the complaint, Rheault has said.

Neither Mascio, who has taught for more than 15 years, nor her attorney returned phone calls. Mullica Township School Board Solicitor Will Donio declined to comment.

There is a regular Board of Education meeting 7 tonight at the school library on Elwood Road.

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