MULLICA TOWNSHIP — Kindergarten teacher Kelly Mascio is now suspended without pay, since tenure charges against her have been certified by the township school board and sent to the state education commissioner, the district confirmed Thursday.
A state arbitrator must decide Mascio’s fate within about four months, according to the rules in the TEACHNJ tenure reform law.
If the decision goes entirely in her favor, she would be entitled to back pay for the unpaid suspension time, said Ned Rogovoy, a Vineland attorney in private practice who said about 40 percent of his work is representing teachers for the New Jersey Education Association.
The loss of income puts incredible pressure on teachers to resign, Rogovoy said.
“It’s an awful situation,” said Mullica Township Education Association President Barbara Rheault, a fifth-grade teacher who is also a township committeewoman. She said the union would try to help Mascio through a fundraiser.
Mascio is charged with conduct unbecoming a teaching staff member for poor supervision of her students related to a Sept. 30 incident. Two 5-year-olds ignored rules and went into an in-classroom bathroom together. They emerged fully clothed, each saying the other had wanted to “have sex.”
According to the tenure charges, made public Wednesday, the 5-year-olds later told investigators they had taken off their clothes in the bathroom and touched each other’s “private parts.”
NJEA field representative Vincent Perna said the commissioner could throw out the charges when he gets them, rather than assigning the case to an arbitrator. The NJEA will ask him to do so, through Mascio’s attorney Michael C. Damm, Perna said.
Police Chief John Thompson said Thursday that no one from the school district contacted him about an incorrect police report that stated Mascio had found the kindergarten students naked in the bathroom that day.
Statements in the report came from Principal Matthew Mazzoni, Thompson said.
“The only thing on the police report is what was portrayed to us by the complainant,” said Thompson, adding the district had a copy of the report for months.
Mazzoni did not return a call for comment.
At a contentious board meeting Wednesday night, in which 150 to 200 supporters of Mascio demanded the teacher’s reinstatement, both school board Solicitor Will Donio and Rheault said they could not correct statements quoted from the police report in earlier stories in The Press of Atlantic City because the tenure charges were not yet public.
Mascio reported the children’s behavior to the school psychologist, according to an incident statement she wrote Sept. 30, before being suspended with pay. The statement was made public by the Mullica Township Education Association on Wednesday night.
From there, administrators and police were called, and the case was referred to the state division of Child Protection and Permanency.
Mascio’s suspension without pay was confirmed Thursday by district Business Administrator/Board Secretary Karen Gfroehrer.
Although she no longer receives a salary, Mascio’s health insurance and other benefits are protected during this period leading up to a hearing before an arbitrator, Rogovoy said.
It took four months for Superintendent Brenda Harring-Morro to file the tenure charges against Mascio on Jan. 30. The Board of Education voted 8-1 to certify the charges Feb. 19, according to school board legal documents, which were delivered to the commission’s office Wednesday.
Lawyers who have handled tenure cases said five months from suspension to certification of charges is not a particularly long time, given that the state Institutional Abuse Investigative Unit had to investigate and make a report. Then the district and its attorney also had to investigate, and options had to be discussed at board meetings, then voted upon.
But the NJEA’s Perna said it really shouldn’t have taken more than a couple of months.
“We’e talking about an incident. It should be investigated promptly, like a board meeting or two,” Perna said. “Having said that, we’ve got districts which will remain nameless that put people on suspension and do nothing for a year.”
He said the Mascio case should be very simple.
“She was suspended without having any discussion with her. We view that as, obviously, totally wrong,” Perna said.
Rogovoy said the Mullica case has probably taken a bit longer than normal to reach the commissioner, but he said many factors can cause delays.
It can take as many as 60 days to get a report back from the state’s Institutional Abuse Investigative Unit, which is mandated to investigate every call of alleged institutional abuse or neglect, Rogovoy said.
The IAIU determined allegations of neglect against Mascio were unfounded, Damm said in an answer to the district’s tenure charges.
When the IAIU says charges are unfounded, the board must decide whether the acts in the case “rise to the level they can take this person’s tenure,” Rogovoy said.
The board uses different standards than the IAIU, said school board attorney Carl Tanksley, of the law firm of Parker McCay in Lawrenceville, Mercer County. He has written about tenure reform and presented a summary of the first 23 tenure decisions made under New Jersey’s new law at last year’s New Jersey School Boards Association convention in Atlantic City.
“The administration is looking for following rules and procedures,” Tanksley said. “If certain policies were not complied with, that can be the basis (for revoking tenure). Districts do have different standards.”
And sometimes taking a little more time is a good thing, he said.
“The board wants to be sure it’s making the right decision,” Tanksley said.
Rogovoy said the board had a range of lesser punishments it could have used, such as a letter of reprimand or withholding a pay raise.
The arbitrator may come back with a decision recommending one of those lesser courses of action, he said.
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