October 23, 2007

North Jersey Teacher Sex Arrests Up ; Technology Increasing Opportunity


A compulsory striptease in the principal's office. Rough sex play after wrestling practice. Fondling students during gym class.

Thirteen North Jersey educators have been arrested for these and other sexual crimes against their students in the last five years, a review by The Record has found. The numbers reflect a small proportion of the overall teaching force, but point to a persistent pattern of manipulation and abuse.

"In any crime, you need access and opportunity," said Chief Assistant Prosecutor Joseph Del Russo, who heads the sex crimes unit in the Passaic County Prosecutor's Office. "In a school setting, there is unfettered access and unlimited opportunity for a molester."

Of those arrested, 11 have pleaded guilty to a variety of crimes, ranging from sexual assault to child cruelty. Two are awaiting trial.

Prosecutors and experts on the subject see several trends that have made these cases more prevalent. Students and families are more likely to come forward, encouraged by reports of convictions and a societal crackdown on sexual predators. School administrators, historically loath to involve police in campus matters, now work closely with law enforcement agencies through school resource officers and drug- and gang-awareness programs. And "there's more opportunity" for molesters, and for police intent on catching them, Del Russo said.

"Twenty or 30 years ago, you didn't have cellphones, computers, text messaging. You didn't have the kind of easy access between students and teachers that you have now," he said. "In every case I've seen since 2000, the relationship between the student and the teacher has been fostered or facilitated by e-mail."

And that has made chasing down allegations easier, because there's a trail of communication to follow.

Take the case of James Darden, a beloved and award-winning middle- school teacher in Teaneck. After he was arrested on charges that he had sex with an eighth-grade student, prosecutors reported that he had admitted the crime in an online chat with his accuser. He was indicted and is awaiting trial.

Proceedings will resume Tuesday in another local case: Roy Hermalyn, a former assistant superintendent of Englewood schools, faces charges of molesting three teenage students and paying one of them for sex. Attorneys are now picking jurors for the trial in Superior Court in Hackensack.

"From the most decorated teacher that is well-known and well- liked in the school and community, to teachers that are not so well- liked we see them all," said Assistant Prosecutor Liliana Silebi, who directs the sex crimes unit at the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office. "It doesn't matter who it is, if they are in position of power, sometimes they will abuse that power."

Vulnerable victims

Students are more empowered than ever to report abuse they are taught in health class to identify inappropriate behavior and tell a trusted adult as soon as something happens. So the typical victim is a student who may lack the confidence to report such a problem, or is hungry for approval and special attention.

"The top students in class are going to stand up for themselves and report it right away," Silebi said. "So they target kids with problems at home, with emotional issues and low self-esteem."

Experts say abuse remains widely underreported, with an estimated nine out of 10 incidents never revealed. But awareness of the problem has increased, and teachers have become more cautious in their behavior, particularly when it comes to supportive hugs and squeezes.

"It definitely is a heightened atmosphere," said Kathy Coulibaly, spokeswoman for the New Jersey Education Association. The union conducts training seminars for teachers on boundaries in student relationships, on strategies to prevent them from having their meaning misconstrued.

"A kindergarten child might say to their teacher, 'I love you,' " Coulibaly said. "What's the correct response to make a child feel protected and feel special, but at the same time make sure everybody understands that this situation is not inappropriate? Generally, it is just 'Thank you.' "

No solo encounters

Officials in Teaneck have begun to offer their own training in the wake of Darden's case and another high-profile scandal. Former Teaneck High School Principal Joe White admitted in July that he engaged in sexual conversations with a 17-year-old student and asked the boy to lower his pants in order to receive a recommendation.

Before school started this September, lawyers met with district staff to make sure everyone understood sexual harassment policies. The district also has decided that one-on-one tutoring must be performed in public settings, such as a cafeteria, and reemphasized its policy that no employees are ever to be alone with a student in a classroom with the door closed, said spokesman David Bicofsky.

Such solo encounters are when molesters find their opportunity. Robert Quinn, the former athletic director at Leonia High School, repeatedly invited a 17-year-old student into his office after wrestling practice for massages and spanking sessions. The encounters continued for two years, until the boy told a classmate, who alerted school officials. Quinn eventually was sentenced to five years of probation and lifelong parole supervision.

Cases unreported

Even when a teacher is arrested or convicted, the state office in charge of revoking teacher licenses doesn't always find out. County prosecutors and school districts usually notify the state Department of Education when teachers are convicted of a crime. But they are not legally obligated to do so.

Reporting by prosecutors is not 100 percent, "and that in fact is an issue. There's not a statutory requirement to these reports," said Robert Higgins, director of the Education Department's Office of Licensure and Credentials. Meanwhile, school districts are required to tell the licensing office only when an accused or convicted teacher retires or resigns.

"Someone can be accused or even indicted but not resign or retire," he said.

These reporting loopholes have allowed at least five local school district employees to keep their jobs after committing crimes, a Record investigation in March found. They include a Fort Lee school janitor who had been convicted on child abuse charges. A state audit in August found an additional six workers in 21 school districts who had committed crimes, concluding that "there continues to be a risk that disqualified individuals are employed by New Jersey districts."

But that begs the question: Didn't anyone notice the inappropriate behavior? Educators are legally obligated to report any suspicions to the state's Division of Youth and Family Services, or DYFS, and they receive training once a year on the topic.

Some schools have lax atmospheres that may normalize certain forms of harassment, such as a sexualized comment or a slap on the buttocks in the locker room, said Susan Esquilin, a professor at the Center for Child Advocacy at Montclair State University and a psychologist who works with children in abuse cases. Schools also may fail to set clear boundaries for student-teacher relationships, especially when they continue outside of school.

"Often, the teachers who get involved with children [inappropriately] are the most popular ones that get involved with students off school grounds," she said. "It seems on the surface like these are friendly efforts to get the children involved in a positive way, by taking them on fishing trips or to movies."

Victim moved in

Paterson teacher Jodi Thorp began a sexual relationship with a 14- year-old boy who was a member of her after-school group, Helping Underprivileged Gifted Students, or HUGS. Thorp took HUGS members on overnight trips to Florida and Washington, D.C., and hosted weekend sleepovers at her Mendham Township home. Her victim even moved into the Thorp home, with his mother's permission, so he could attend the town's first-rate public schools.

A year later, allegations surfaced that Thorp had had at least 20 sexual encounters with the boy, and also had encouraged him not to testify against her in court. She faced up to 15 years if convicted. She pleaded guilty to a single count of sexual contact and eventually served four months in the Morris County Jail earlier this year.

Sentences such as Thorp's may seem light. But that's because victims usually are hesitant to testify, making prosecutors amenable to plea deals, Del Russo said. Further, prosecution can be hampered when allegations take years to surface a common situation, because the victims usually see themselves as involved in real, caring relationships with their teachers.

"It's not that the kids are afraid to tell; the kids think they're in love," Esquilin said. "In a few cases I saw in the past year, the cases came out not because the kid told anybody, but because somebody else told somebody or e-mail was intercepted."

Charisma as a tool

The charisma that makes for great teachers also may help predators "groom" children as prey, said Dr. Nancy Graffin, head of treatment services at the Adult Diagnostic and Treatment Center at Avenel, a state facility for sex offenders.

"It's not unusual for someone who victimizes children to be particularly comfortable and adept at relating to children," she said. "It's part of the purposeful setting up of sex offending to gain the trust of children and their families."

Popular teachers often inspire loyal supporters. Hundreds of people including an entire eighth-grade class raised $400,000 to make bail for Jose Cruz, a Midland Park gym teacher who worked at St. Leo's School in Elmwood Park and St. Anne's School in Fair Lawn. He later pleaded guilty to fondling nine girls, ages 8 to 11, on their breasts, thighs and behinds, and was sentenced to five years of probation.

And so Graffin offers this reminder to parents: Children are more likely to be abused by someone they know than by a stranger.

"Parents need to be mindful of teachers showing an interest that's too good to be true," she said. "People need to not just give blanket approval to someone just because they have status as a teacher."



Sexual misconduct

Teacher cases since 2002:

Pleaded guilty

Adam Feldman

December 2002

Gym teacher at Park Ridge High School

Pleaded guilty to three counts of child endangerment

Five years' probation and a $7,700 fine

Lisa Bell

February 2003

Teacher at Paterson Catholic Regional High School

Pleaded guilty to child cruelty charges

Five years' probation

Jodi Thorp

February 2003

Teacher at School 24 in Paterson

Pleaded guilty to criminal sexual contact

Four months in jail

Jasmin Ramos

February 2004

Teacher aide, Passaic High School

Pleaded guilty to sexual assault

300 days in jail

Harold Anthony

March 2004

Teacher assistant at Piermont Career Campus in Rockleigh

Pleaded guilty to aggravated sexual contact

180 days in jail

Robert Quinn

March 2004

athletic director at Leonia High School

Pleaded guilty to child endangerment

Five years' probation

Jose Cruz

March 2005

Gym teacher at St. Leo's Grammar School in Elmwood Park

Pleaded guilty to nine counts of child endangerment

Five years' probation

Randy Zellea

October 2005

Substitute teacher from Saddle Brook

Pleaded guilty to child cruelty

Two years' probatiom

Timothy Zisa

April 2006

History teacher and coach at Wayne Hills High School

Pleaded guilty to child cruelty

Five years' probation

Joe White

June 2006

Principal at Teaneck High School

duct and child endangerment

Pleaded guilty to official misconduct and child endangerment

Awaiting sentencing

Maria C. Saco

October 2006

Teacher at Lincoln Middle School in Passaic

Pleaded guilty to child endangerment

One year in jail

Awaiting trial

Roy Hermalyn

June 2002

Assistant superintendent in Englewood

Charged with criminal sexual contact

James Darden

June 2007

Teacher at Teaneck Middle School

Charged with sexual assault and misconduct


Staff Writer Kibret Markos contributed to this article. E-mail: [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected]


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