Kelly Heyboer, Are N.J. schools doing enough to stop teacher sex abuse in the classroom?,

Over two years, high school teacher Nicole Dufault allegedly had sex with six of her male students in the South Orange-Maplewood school district.

The language arts teacher is accused of meeting the 14- and 15-year-old students in her car at Burger King and on local streets at lunch and after school.

But, most of the alleged sexual encounters – more than a dozen — took place right in Dufault’s classroom in Columbia High School, one of the largest and busiest schools in the state, according to court documents.

Presumably, other teachers and students were walking by in the hallway or using nearby classrooms in the 1,900-student school. But, if anyone suspected something was amiss in Dufault’s classroom, they didn’t notify police.

The investigation into Dufault’s alleged sexual misconduct didn’t begin until a student showed the school principal a cell phone video of the teacher performing oral sex on another student, according to court papers. Dufault, who claims to have a brain injury, has pleaded not guilty and is awaiting trial.

The Maplewood case is one of a string of recent New Jersey cases involving teachers accused of sexually assaulting students in their classrooms or on school property.

RELATED: Teacher in sex assault case couldn’t control behavior due to brain disorder, lawyer says
The location of the alleged abuse doesn’t surprise Terri Miller, president of SESAME (Stop Educator Sexual Abuse Misconduct & Exploitation), a national advocacy group.

Teacher sexual abuse often takes place on school grounds, Miller said. Part of the problem is fellow teachers rarely flag educators they suspect might be behaving inappropriately with students. In most cases of educator sexual misconduct, it is the victim or a fellow student who speaks up first.

“We can’t put it solely on the child to have the courage to report the abuse,” Miller said. “We have to train the adults recognize the warning signs better.”

In some cases, fellow teachers and school officials later admit they felt something was not right with the educator accused of sexual abuse, Miller said. But the teachers say they did not want to accuse–and potentially ruin the career–of a colleague without proof.

“Very few are reporting their suspicions,” Miller said. “They are erring on the side of the predator more than they are erring on the side of the child.”

Charol Shakeshaft, a Virginia Commonwealth University professor who has studied educator sex abuse, said many teachers and school officials don’t recognize the early signs that a colleague may be a sexual predator.

“For instance, they might notice a teacher meeting with the same student before school with the door closed. And they might even have a funny feeling about it. But because they are not trained, they don’t realize that this is a red flag that they need to report,” said Shakeshaft, a professor of educational leadership.

Don’t ‘pass the trash’
SESAME is among the national groups advocating for better training for teachers and school employees on spotting and reporting signs of educator sexual abuse.

The group is also pushing for new laws making it more difficult for problem teachers to be hired in other school districts. The legislation, known as the “Passing the Trash” bills, requires job applicants to disclose to potential employers if they were ever investigated for sexual misconduct or asked to leave a job due to an investigation.

Pennsylvania passed a “Pass the Trash” bill last year, joining Oregon and Missouri in trying to crack down on teachers who quietly move from district to district if they are suspected of sexual misconduct, but never charged.

SESAME is also calling on the federal government to step up enforcement of Title IX, the federal civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on sex in schools. The law includes a provision that requires schools to appoint a Title IX coordinator to handle allegations of sexual abuse.

“A school must make clear to its responsible employees to whom they should report an incident of alleged sexual violence,” the U.S. Dept. of Education’s Office for Civil Rights said in a recent Q&A sent to schools.

“Rules about keeping doors open would help. Training would help,” Shakeshaft said.
In New Jersey, school employees are required by state law to receive annual training on the procedures for early detection of abused children, said Richard Vespucci, a spokesman for the state Department of Education. However, there are no laws mandating specific training on cases of teacher sexual abuse.

“There are several requirements that school employees must receive professional development on that would touch on reporting all types of abuse. Professional development regarding sexual assault and sexual misconduct isn’t specifically mandated,” Vespucci said. “If staff are trained on early detection of missing, abused or neglected children, staff would ‘spot and report’ to child welfare authorities when the conduct is occurring within the school walls.”

An arrest in Maplewood
In the Maplewood case, Dufault is facing a 40-count indictment for allegedly abusing six students in 2013 and 2014 during both summer school and the regular school year. The charges include aggravated sexual assault and endangering the welfare of a child.

Dufault, of Caldwell, has denied any wrongdoing. Her attorney said the Bloomfield native is the “victim” in the case because the 36-year-old underwent surgery for a pregnancy-related brain injury that required a shunt in her frontal lobe and made her vulnerable to her students.

“Ms. Dufault suffers from frontal lobe syndrome which has rendered her defenseless to over-aggressive behavior, and that is exactly what she was exposed to,” Timothy Smith, Dufault’s attorney, said earlier this week in a statement to NJ Advance Media.

The single mother of two was arrested in September and released on $500,000 bail. The details of the alleged assaults, including the sexual encounters in Dufault’s classroom, were released earlier this month in court papers related to her attorney’s request that her charges be downgraded.

Dufault had worked at Hawthorne High School, Passaic Valley Regional High School, Ridgefield Park Jr./Sr. High School and Bloomfield Middle School before taking her job at Columbia High School nine years ago, prosecutors said.

She is not charged with sexually assaulting students at any of her previous schools.

South Orange-Maplewood officials have said little about Dufault’s arrest, citing the ongoing legal case.

“The allegations released by the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office are deeply disturbing,” Elizabeth Daugherty, president of the school board for the South Orange-Maplewood School District, said after her arrest last year. “By law, administrators and Board of Education members are not permitted to publicly discuss personnel or individual student matters, or other issues requiring confidentiality.”

But prosecutors said there had been at least two complaints about Dufault At Columbia High School before her arrest. In one, the teacher was accused of having having “inappropriate sexual conversations in the classroom,” Essex County Assistant Prosecutor Gina Iosim said last year. In the other complaint, Dufault was accused of listing a fake job on the resume she used when applying for her post at Columbia High School.

String of classroom sex allegations
The Maplewood case follows a string of similar teacher sexual abuse cases around New Jersey involving alleged assaults on school property. Among the recent cases:

Jenna Leahey allegedly had sexual contact with a 16-year-old former football player while she was an English teacher and field hockey coach at Parsippany Hills High School. Leahey, who pleaded not guilty last year, is accused of touching the teenager sexually in her classroom and sending him sexually explicit photos and text messages.
Nolan Johnson, who taught technical theater at the exclusive Hun School in Princeton, was charged last year with sexual assaulting a 16-year-old female student on and off campus. Police said the victim’s mother alerted school officials about the relationship after reading her daughter’s diary.
Keith R. McGee, an art teacher at Snyder High School in Jersey City, was charged last year with sexually assaulting a 17-year-old female student. The assaults took place in his classroom during school hours on multiple occasions, police said.
Marc-Andrew Marucci, an earth science teacher at Clifton High School, was charged last year with sexual misconduct involving a 17-year-old female student. The teacher made sexually suggestive statements and had sexual contact with the teenager on school grounds, law enforcement officials said.
Fatima Grupico, a history teacher at Cardinal McCarrick High School in South Amboy, was charged with sexual assault earlier this month in a case involving a 17-year-old male student. Grupico allegedly assaulted the student on several occasions at the Catholic school, which has since closed.
Jason Fennes, a first grade teacher at Cedar Hill Prep School in Somerset, was indicted in April on charges he sexually assaulted a 10-year-old female student. Fennes was previously indicted twice in Morris County on similar charges involving the alleged sexual abuse of four first-grade girls in his classroom and an attached bathroom at William Mason Elementary School in Montville. He was also charged with sexually assaulting a teenager while serving as an assistant track coach at Butler High School.
Scott Van Hoven, a music teacher serving as an adviser to a school play at John F. Kennedy High School in Paterson, pleaded guilty earlier this year to official misconduct and criminal sexual conduct for sex acts with a 16-year-old female student. Van Hoven admitted to engaging in sexual acts in his office with a teenager he met when she participated in the spring musical, “Little Shop of Horrors.”
‘Rumors, rumors, rumors’
Shakeshaft, the Virginia Commonwealth University professor who studies teacher sex assault cases and school policies, said there are some steps schools can take to prevent abuse.

In addition to better training for teachers and school officials, districts can make physical changes to their buildings, including requiring classroom doors to be made of glass or remain open, Shakeshaft said. Though some teachers might just move their abuse to off-campus locations, schools could also move tutoring sessions to public locations and institute regular patrols of locked offices and other school rooms before and after school.

“They might find other locations, but it would help. Rules about keeping doors open would help. Training would help,” Shakeshaft said.

Educators should also be regularly reminded about the warning signs of abuse, including hearing about teachers who take children in their cars, meet students alone in classrooms after hours alone, or seem to go out of their way to spend time with and fit in with teenagers.

School officials should also pay attention to the school rumor mill, Shakeshaft said.

“Rumors, rumors, rumors. Kids see things. They often don’t know exactly what they are seeing, but they do talk about how a teacher spends a lot of time with certain children,” Shakeshaft said.



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