POLITICS & GOVERNMENT

Lawmakers look to stop schools from ‘passing the trash’

BY Brenda Flanagan, Senior Correspondent |

Lawmakers considered a bill to stop schools from what’s called “passing the trash.” By “trash,” they mean abusers like Jason Fennes, a teacher who kept getting hired by different New Jersey school districts, including Montville, despite multiple complaints that he sexually abused students. Assemblyman Jay Webber explained how Fennes stayed under the radar.

“What predators have done is been accused. The investigation is underway, and then they resign before any conclusion can be made. And that’s the loophole they’ve been exploiting,” said Webber.

Fennes was eventually caught by cops at Cedar Hill Prep school and was charged and convicted. Webber has since sponsored a bill that would end “passing the trash” by requiring school districts and job applicants to disclose if an employee ever had substantiated or pending allegations of sexual abuse against them.

“And importantly, it immunizes the former employer from any liability for libel, for sharing truthful information about a former employee. And it also requires hiring districts to ask for that information and follow up,” continued Webber.

The bill’s requirement, that schools report even pending, unresolved complaints of sexual abuse, raised red flags with some lawmakers and lobbyists who are concerned about fairness.

“Maybe somebody’s been accused and subsequently it’s been found to be unfounded, or, you know, not accurate, or even malicious. Are we now by this precluding that person from ever being able to get another job?” said Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi.

“All the teacher has to do is to allow the process to be played out,” said Webber.

Webber said innocent teachers will be exonerated and move on. And advocates argued, kids who report abuse should get the benefit of the doubt.

“If we’re not believing our children when they say they’re being harmed, what has this come to, as our society?” said NJ Coalition Against Sexual Assault Executive Director Patricia Teffenhart.

The Assembly Education Committee voted unanimously to release Webber’s bill, which has already passed the Senate, plus other legislation to educate students about sexual abuse and the dangers of sex and social networks. Allyson Pereira sexted her high school boyfriend a topless selfie that went viral. She was brutally bullied.

“Someone even stood on a chair in the cafeteria and shouted, ‘Allyson Pereira is a slut!’ while everyone looked at me and laughed,” she said.

Pereira applauded the proposed bills and said kids need to be taught that social networks, if misused, can destroy lives. The bills all head to a vote in the Assembly.