April 29, 2013 at 10:01 PM
WEST ORANGE, NJ - The Essex County Prosecutor's Office and News sources report that Erica DePalo, former West Orange High School English teacher, was today granted parole by Judge Peter Ryan. With a sentence for aggravated sexual assault that could have brought with it a ten year sentence, her plea agreement gives her instead a suspended sentence and will be subject to lifetime parole supervision.
DePalo's attorney, Anthony Alfano, was able to successfully convince the court that Erica DePalo was suffering from bipolar disorder, extreme depression, and anxiety, but that with full knowledge of her actions, became involved in a sexual relationship with a fifteen year old male student, and admitted that to the court.
"She was functioning in the classroom. But she was feeling it inside," said Alfano "She was heavily, heavily depressed."
DePalo's sentencing in state Superior Court culminated in a three year suspended sentence, considered way too lenient by Interim Superintendent James O'Neill of the West Orange Public School district. If she cooperates with the conditions of her parole she will not serve prison time. In addition, she must register as a sex offender under Megan’s Law and cannot seek public or government office nor have any contact with the victim.
According to Alfano, DePalo was diagnosed with bipolar disorder prior to her sexual relationship with the minor. He further claimed that she was incorrectly prescribed antidepressants, affecting her sensibilities of entitlement and judgment.
"She thought she was too good; that she could do anything."
Crying, DePalo said in court, "I feel nothing but remorse for my actions and deep, deep sadness for all I’ve lost because of them."
As part of the plea deal, the original charges of first-degree aggravated sexual assault and second-degree sexual assault were dropped. Endangering the welfare of a child stayed on the table.
Alfano and the District Attorney, Tony Gutierrez, both said the boy's family approved the deal. Gutierrez said the 15-year-old boy, a student in DePalo’s honor’s English class, was the 'only victim' and that the relationship lasted a few weeks.
Several former students, parents, teachers, colleagues and friends sent more than 30 letters in support of DePalo to Judge Ryan. Ryan said in his 15 years on the bench he’d "never seen such an outpouring of love and affection."
However, other former students were not surprised about the arrest, claiming that DePalo had dated several of the boys once they turned 18 and had graduated high school, and claiming that it was 'common knowledge' around the school. Others claimed she had 'class favorites,' even putting their baby pictures in the classroom during the school year. "We all knew about it" said one student. Said another "she dated my friend after he graduated. She went out with a bunch of the kids." It is not illegal for an adult to date an 18 year old in the state of New Jersey.
Said one parent, 'My son had her for Honors English and he thought she was a great teacher. He learned a lot from her in that class. After her arrest, I started to hear all kinds of stories and didn't want to believe them. Now I guess they were true."