09 May 2012

Sex Abuse in New Jersey Schools

Clifton, New Jersey is one of those cities almost no one has heard of unless he or she has lived in it.  However, fans of The Sopranos will recognize much of it, as many of the show's scenes were filmed there.

Cross the George Washington Bridge, drive about fifteen minutes on US Route 46 and you'll find yourself in the hometown of Chris Opperman and Ivan Wilzig.

Now the city is getting a reputation for something besides its cultural treasures.  I think, though, that its proud natives would rather their home be known for something besides the events that are landing it in the news.

The other night, Clifton High School music teacher Kristin Leone was arrested for having sexual contact twice in April with a student.  One of the encounters took place on school grounds. 

It's not the school's first sexual scandal involving a student.  Almost a year ago, a 15-year-old girl reported being raped in one of the stairwells during a mid-morning class change.  Two older male students were charged with the attack.  James Urbina, who is now 19, pleaded guilty to aggravated criminal assault, aggravated sexual contact and criminal restraint.  His next court date is 21 May.  Another student, now 17, was charged with sexual assault.  His case has been resolved.

In December of 2010, the mother of a special needs student filed complaints against Jimmie Warren, who was then the principal of Clifton High.  She alleged that he exposed himself and touched her breasts during meetings about her child in May and June of that year.  Four months after the complaint was made, he resigned.

There has also been a jump in the number of sexual incidents in other schools in surrounding northern New Jersey communities.  Officials attribute the spike to increased awareness and reporting.  That may well be the case.  However, Chief Assistant Passaic County Prosecutor Joseph Del Russo says, "I believe there are more teachers crossing the line than there were ten years ago."  He blames social media for "blurring the boundaries" between students and teachers.  In most of the recent cases, frequent text messages were a cause or part of the exchanges between the perpetrator and victim.  It's not unusual for students and teachers--particularly the younger ones, who may not be much older than their students--to chat with each other via Facebook and other electronic media. 

That might be part of the answer.  Another part, I believe, is that children and teenagers today are more isolated, and often lonelier, than people of my generation were.  Today kids are told not to talk to, much less befriend, strangers. But they're still taught to trust authority figures like teachers and coaches.  That's a recipe for disaster because, in having fewer interactions with strangers than kids had in my generation, young people often don't learn how to read facial and body language, or other cues that can help them to sense danger.  So, no matter how much they've been urged to be cautious, they don't really know what an inappropriate situation is until they've been through it.

This is not to say that all teachers or coaches are potential predators upon kids.  I just think that, just as my teachers would never have related to kids in ways that some of today's teachers think is normal, kids in my time would have more readily sensed a predatory impulse in an adult. 

And kids in Northern New Jersey areas like Bergen and Passaic Counties, for all of their affluence and consciousness of trends, are as socially isolated as any I've seen.  Most spend little time with their parents, or even other adults.  And they may well spend more time on Facebook and texting each other than kids just about anywhere else.  Most of their "friends" are online rather than in their schools or neighborhoods.    Perhaps they need another kind of education.


  1. Teachers who use Facebook or other social media sites to communicate with students are asking for trouble. Even if nothing happens, it has "the appearance of impropriety." (See, I did learn something in law school.)

    Are the educators so damn dumb that they cannot figure this out? What 30 year old man or woman wants to be friends with 16 year olds, even if just in an online sense? Even if you post innocuous vacation photos on FB, people will raise eyebrows, i.e. "Why is this teacher posting pictures of him and his family on the beach, when he has HS students as FB friends?"


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