Jerome Davis’ 11-year-old son didn’t say anything when a teacher’s aide allegedly called him a name and pushed him down in his special-education class at the Charles Spragg School in Egg Harbor City last month.
But another student told his parents, word spread and two parents decided to file criminal charges against aide Brenda Ruth in municipal court — one claiming harassment and Davis’ complaint of simple assault. School Superintendent John Gilly confirmed that Ruth was put on paid administrative leave April 20 pending further investigation and the outcome of court proceedings, but he said he could not discuss the case because of the pending litigation and personnel and student confidentiality.
The state’s tough new anti-bullying law has put the behavior of everyone in a school under a microscope. But while most cases involve students bullying other students, cases of teachers or other adults allegedly bullying students are also surfacing, resulting in criminal charges and publicity — especially if parents are not satisfied with the response from school officials.
Advocates for children and teachers said that while so far there have been just a few known incidents, there is more awareness. The state Department of Education reports on the number of school-reported bullying incidents annually, but it does not say if the alleged offender was an adult or student.
“The idea that parents are more active in observing and responding in general is a good thing,” said Stuart Green, director of the New Jersey Coalition for Bullying Awareness. “But an incident has to be judged on its merits. When it comes to their children, parents can overreact to situations. But there is an imbalance of power in the classroom, and parents are entitled to look at that.”
That oversight has gotten easier thanks to smartphones and minirecorders. Proving harassment or bullying can be difficult if an incident is based on the claims of a student against the word of an adult. But last year a student in the Gloucester County Special Services School District used his smartphone to record a teacher berating him. The teacher was dismissed.
Last month, a Cherry Hill parent sent his autistic child to school with a hidden recorder that taped adults berating him and calling him names. The parent then posted it on YouTube. School officials said all parties involved were no longer with the district. But a lawyer for the teacher said she was not in the room when the incident happened but was still being accused by the parent who wanted her fired.
Green said that ideally, most incidents would be handled at the school level. But schools do not have the legal authority of a court, and parents may not be satisfied with a reprimand or temporary suspension.
Davis said he decided to file assault charges to make sure that, if found guilty, the aide would no longer be allowed to work in a school. The case will be heard June 6.
“The kids were scared,” Davis said.
Ned Rogovoy, a Vineland lawyer representing Ruth, has represented other area teachers in similar cases through their union, the New Jersey Education Association. He said that he defended about 20 cases a year in municipal court and that even a minor complaint was serious because of the forfeiture law, which requires a school employee convicted of a crime connected to their employment to forfeit their right to public employment.
“This is their livelihood,” Rogovoy said. “We have to take it seriously.”
State Department of Education licensing regulations also require school officials to notify the state Board of Examiners any time a tenured or nontenured teaching staff member or substitute teacher who is accused of a criminal offense or unbecoming conduct resigns or retires from a position. Even if not convicted in court, the person could still lose his or her teaching certificate.
But Board of Examiner complaints can take months, or even years, to resolve. In January, Pleasantville teacher Richard Voza lost his certificate over inappropriate emails he had sent from his former job with the Penns Grove School District in Salem County in 2005. They were revealed during another state investigation in 2009.
Rogovoy said he had handled cases in which a staff person might have received some disciplinary action at the school level but parents still filed criminal charges because they wanted the person fired. He cited a situation in which the case was dropped, but the parents set up a website saying their child had not gotten justice.
“There are times when a parent is trying to force the situation,” he said.
For the district, it may be easier to let dissatisfied parents file criminal charges because then school officials can just respond to the court decision. Still, advocates encourage school officials and parents to try to resolve problems at the school level.
“It is different when the situation is not student-to-student,” said New Jersey School Boards Association President Frank Belluscio. “We don’t know if staff-to-student bullying is widespread, but we would still hope that a school could handle it in a way that was fair to both.”
Steve Baker, a spokesman for the NJEA, said they would not want an abusive teacher or aide in a classroom, but teachers also have the right of due process.
“I would be very concerned if the (criminal) charges appeared to be harassment,” he said. “If there is no evidence, it still drags the person’s name through the mud.”
Green said the real goal of the law is to create a positive environment for everyone in school.
“I tend to only hear about the worst cases,” he said. “But ideally a parent should never have to go to law enforcement. The school should respond in a way that makes sure the child feels safe.”
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