HACKENSACK — Schools are forbidding teachers and coaches from befriending students on Facebook and banning them from giving students gifts or rides home to guard against situations that could lead to sexual abuse of children.
Employee behavior is being more closely scrutinized, and staff members are being trained to act as watchdogs as more school officials in New Jersey realize they need to do a better job policing their own.
“The worst thing that a school district can do is to ignore this and to pretend that it doesn’t go on,” said Steven Engravalle, interim superintendent in Fort Lee, Bergen County. “I wish it were being spoken about more. It’s still a very dark subject that people don’t want to talk about.”
The new policies and programs come as North Jersey schools deal with 25 arrests or convictions the past three years of teachers, coaches or other school employees accused of sexually abusing or engaging in inappropriate relationships with children.
Since The Record published a story about the issue Jan. 30, there have been two more arrests: Hours after signing a contract to become a teacher at Rutherford High School, Richard Damato Jr., 24, a Bayonne resident, was arrested Feb. 8 for allegedly exchanging explicit messages over the Internet with a Passaic County sheriff’s officer posing as a 12-year-old girl. On March 14, Darren Clark, a maintenance worker for Morgan Educational Services, was arrested and charged with luring a teenager onto an unoccupied school bus in Bogota. In both cases, the charges were still pending as of Friday.
Allegations such as these have sparked a national campaign to ensure a teacher under suspicion of abuse can’t quietly resign and get a job teaching somewhere else. And in New Jersey, there is a push to allow victims to more easily sue schools where the abuse occurred, a move advocates say could compel schools to be more vigilant.
But as someone who has prosecuted child sex abuse cases for 20 years, Joseph Del Russo said many schools still fail to enforce “bright-lines rules” about teacher-student relationships that offer little room for debate about what’s acceptable.
“There should be no ambiguity,” said Del Russo, chief assistant Passaic County prosecutor and head of the special victim’s unit.
Educating adults, too
Too often, sex-abuse prevention efforts in schools have been aimed only at the potential victims, with students’ being urged to tell a “trusted adult” about abuse, said Terri Miller, president of the national prevention group, Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation.
“It’s not going far enough to just educate the children about keeping themselves safe,” Miller said. “It’s about a teacher in one room watching the teacher in the room next door, and the principal watching those teachers.”
While experts say there’s no psychological profile test that could help schools screen for predators, there are common patterns in how abusers gain and then abuse the trust of their victims: repeatedly texting or emailing; giving gifts; offering rides home; sharing intimate details about personal problems or singling a student out for special attention.
Besides banning these behaviors, schools should hold more extensive training on warning signs, said Robert Shoop, director of Kansas State University’s Cargill Center for Ethical Leadership. They also should establish a protocol for investigating allegations, including designating a staff member as the person to whom other faculty can report their concerns, he said. Shoop has testified as an expert in more than 80 cases in which schools were sued for failing to prevent abuse.
“You can’t report everybody that gives a kid a ride in their car because there may be some appropriate reason for the ride to be given,” Shoop said. “But you have to have someone who’s paying attention and who knows how to investigate these behaviors and to intervene when they see a staff member crossing a line. That’s how you prevent the abuse.”
With liability concerns growing, the New Jersey School Boards Association Insurance Group, which insures 380 districts statewide, has created a sexual harassment and abuse prevention webinar for districts to use as a training tool, said Lauren Schilling, a spokeswoman.
Meanwhile, many North Jersey superintendents say they are doing more to monitor their staffs. “Do I Google people? Absolutely,” said Fair Lawn Superintendent Bruce Watson. “Do I go on Facebook and check out this person? Absolutely.”
Still, school officials say setting boundaries is not easy.
The role of a teacher or coach in a child’s life often spills outside normal classroom boundaries. Math teachers tutor. Music teachers give lessons. Baseball coaches give private batting instruction. Some of this can be policed by the schools, some must be policed by the parent, said Daniel Fishbein, superintendent in Ridgewood.
Other officials said boundary lines can blur when school employees and their families live and are active in the towns where they work.
Del Russo, the Passaic prosecutor, said he’s often heard school employees talk about what they see as unclear boundaries, with some even suggesting the fault lies in the fact that teens are more sexualized today.
“You talk to some teachers privately, and they say, ‘You don’t get it, Joe. It’s the sexual Wild West in the schools today,’” Del Russo said. “They place a premium on the child looking older or acting older. And they place too much emphasis on the responsibility of the child in preventing these relationships from occurring. They don’t think about the disparity of power in a relationship between an adult and a teenager.”
Engravalle, the Fort Lee superintendent, takes a hard line on boundaries.
“I say to my staff, ‘Even in high school, when they have beards and drive, they are still children,’” Engravalle said.
Changing the law
Victims’ advocates say there is one sure way to force schools to do a better job at preventing sexual abuse of students: Sue.
In New Jersey, advocates are pressing to change a law that gives adults who were victims of child sexual abuse just two years after they reach adulthood — or two years after they first realized, as an adult, they had been abused — to file a lawsuit against the institution where the abuse occurred.
“If entities such as schools and churches are not going to be held responsible, then there’s no incentive for those entities to take measures to ensure children are protected,” said Greg Gianforcaro, an attorney who specializes in such cases. He said many victims are too frightened during the initial stages to consider suing.
A measure to change the law failed in the last legislative session largely because of opposition from the Catholic Church, said a chief sponsor, Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex. Meanwhile, victim’s groups are upset about a bill introduced by Assemblyman Lou Greenwald, D-Camden. It gives victims greater leeway to sue abusers but retains the two-year limit on suing institutions.
“It would still insulate far too many institutions from having to take responsibility,” said Vitale, who hopes to hold hearings on another version of his original bill in May.
Catholic officials have said they oppose the measure as unnecessary because judges already have the power to waive the statute of limitations, possibly allowing groundless suits to go forward.
In Pennsylvania, lawmakers held a hearing this month on a measure that would prohibit confidentiality agreements between a school and a staff member who resigns after coming under suspicion of abuse. It would require such conduct be disclosed to prospective employers, ending a practice that victims’ groups call “passing the trash.”
Engravalle agrees that New Jersey could use such a law so school administrators, without fear of being sued, could share information with one another about prospective job candidates, he said.
“I’ve had staff members I’ve let go because something just didn’t smell right to me,” he said. If another employer calls for a reference for that person, Engravalle knows he can’t detail the circumstances of the person’s departure, so he’ll just say, “Do you have anybody else?”
“They get the message,” he said.
When he worked in Sussex County, Engravalle said he used to ask job candidates to sign a release allowing him access to their personnel file at their previous schools. If they refused, he wouldn’t hire them.
“You get challenged on these things, but you have to do them,” he said. “I’m not working in a factory here. I’m working with children. There should be a higher standard.”
An Associated Press Member Exchange report.