The Hopewell Valley Regional School District (HVRSD) Board of Education held a special meeting last night to discuss allegations of sexual abuse that surfaced last week.
Last Tuesday, MercerMe reported that a Notice of Claim had been filed by a former HVRSD student against the District alleging that a Timberlane Middle School teacher had sexually harassed and abused her. https://mercerme.com/hvrsd-teacher-subject-of-pending-sexual-assault-lawsuit/
Last nights’ meeting, which was attended by approximately 50 members of the public, opened with an opportunity for questions by attendees, followed by answers from Dr. Thomas Smith, HVRSD superintendent, and Board of Education President Alyce Murray.
During public comment, in which each member of the public had three minutes to speak, 11 people spoke passionately about knowing the alleged victim personally and their concerns about how her claims were handled when she was a student at Timberlane. The Board was asked whether it failed to take her allegations seriously, what happened when the first allegations were made in 2016, what policies regarding staff misconduct are now and were then in place, who makes the decisions in cases like this, and why the accused teacher is still working in the school. Some members of the public also described specific things they had heard happened with the accused teacher and with other teachers. Others alleged that the District had violated numerous Federal and State laws.
While most of the commenters identified themselves as friends and neighbors of the alleged victim, a few other people urged the community to wait for all the facts before coming to a conclusion.
Smith stated, “In response to everyone, I can assure you that we are looking at everything.” He explained that, because the case is a legal matter, there are some things that he and the board members cannot discuss in public. “However,” he said, “to think we haven’t thought about this every day since it was reported – I have met with family on more than one occasion. It is sad to be here in this situation.” He added that the decisions made were not made in isolation. However, he later said that some of the allegations in the legal claim and by the public were assertions he had not heard before.
Amid continual back and forth with the audience who frequently shouted out to the Board, Smith and Murray explained that when the allegations were first made during the 2016-2017 school year protocol was followed. Murray said it is their understanding, based on a statement from the Timberlane principal, that DCP&P (the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency, which is New Jersey’s child protection and child welfare agency within the New Jersey Department of Children and Families) was called and it did not launch an investigation at that time.
Smith said that DCP&P was called again in 2018, at which time it did launch an investigation that ultimately took three months to complete. The Hopewell Township police also were alerted at that time and they in turn alerted the County prosecutor’s office. During the period of investigation, he said, the accused teacher was removed from the classroom. Smith said that ultimately DCP&P’s decision was that the claims against the teacher were “unfounded” and there were no findings by DCP&P that the District had failed to handle the matter properly.
Smith also explained that the District procedure requires that it notify DCP&P and the Hopewell Township Police Department. Further, he added that the District deemed that an internal investigation should not be initiated due to concerns that the investigation would have not been suitably objective, and therefore the protocol was to alert the outside agencies.
Board President Murray stressed that this situation concerns both a student matter and a personnel matter, which puts the Board and the administration in the position of ensuring the privacy of all people involved. Smith indicated the Board was made aware of the issue during the past school year and Murray indicated that the Board had discussed the issue in at least one previous meeting during executive session due to it being a personnel matter. However, she indicated the Board had not considered policies relating to the issue and would discuss that during the executive session following the meeting’s public comment last night, but would not be taking any action to move any policies forward.
In answer to how staff are trained, Smith responded, “The world has changed – what we do on an elementary level necessitates touching kids… but as you get to older students it is very clear… we try to balance social/emotional learning but times have changed because you don’t put your hands on children so it is not misinterpreted.” He explained further that there is no written policy because many staff members work with very young children and he noted that he does not know of any school that has a written policy regarding touching students. He added that all staff have annual sexual harassment training as part of their professional development.
Finally, Smith explained that the accused teacher still works at Timberlane Middle School “because the investigation proved no evidence of wrongdoing and [DCP&P] said it was unfounded”.
After an hour, the public part of the meeting was adjourned and the Board went into executive session. Board President Murray indicated that no action would be taken by the Board during executive session.