ELIZABETH, NJ – Thursday night's Board of Education meeting was marked by frequent emotional outbursts and raucous behavior as a parade of speakers took the floor to defend or denounce the re-hiring of a security guard caught on video physically abusing students.
Michael Hunter, a security guard for more than 20 years, previously had a clean record. The event in question occurred in October 2014 at School 2. Afterward, Hunter spent three months removed from the school and was terminated by the board. The union filed a grievance, and Hunter was re-hired as a custodian at a higher salary. Parents of the children involved were not notified. Recently, a video of the incident surfaced 17 months later, and parents learned of the incident for the first time.
Vilmarie Montes, whose daughter was involved, barely withheld tears as she described her feelings watching the video, “My daughter was treated by this man. He was pushing kids around. Nobody told me about this incident. He is working again. This man is an abuser. When you see it (the video), what would you do?”
Mario Mateo described his mother’s reaction when she viewed the video involving his younger sister. “I don’t think he should have contact with children,” he said. “The man shouldn’t be re-hired at all.”
President of the Elizabeth Education Association Joe Cortico spoke in defense of Hunter, saying, “I have known him for 22 years. He has been outstanding in the community. There have been no complaints. This is an isolated incident. The union felt he didn’t have proper representation or due process. I hope that clear heads prevail.”
Penny Meredith, another defender, noted that no one knows what security guards go through on a normal day. “Let’s not let one incident of a good man tarnish his reputation,” Meredith said.
At one point an altercation broke out between Lewis White, who defended Hunter, and Sima Farid, who called for his re-assignment with no contact to children. White told Farid to “be careful,” which she took as a threat, calling for a police officer and saying she wanted to press charges. Then some members of the crowd began angrily yelling and only settled down when Board President Charlene Bathelus intervened.
Community activist James Carey outlined the situation. “The reason why no one knew about the incident was because the former school majority was in control,” he said. “I recall asking one school board commissioner about the incident, and he reluctantly replied, ‘It was a tough decision in the end, there are no real winners because Mr. Hunter is a nice guy.”
According to Carey, Hunter attended an Ethics and Boundaries class. He asserted that during a legal meeting, the former board attorney advised them to send Hunter back to work. “I believe Mr. Trujillo and Ms. Amin sat on that committee and agreed," Carey said. "I was told there was another scenario when a former board member appealed to Mr. Trujillo to bring Mr. Hunter back to work, and he agreed, considering he received the credit."
Now that they’re in the minority, they feel comfortable in bringing an issue that is 17 months old and using it as a political football to character assassinate a person he revered as a nice guy.”
Later in the meeting, board member Carlos Trujillo questioned Hunter's re-hiring.
Superintendent Olga Hugelmeyer explained that the union had filed a grievance when Hunter was terminated and that he was investigated by the Union County Prosecutor’s office and the Elizabeth Police. It was determined that he was not a threat to children. She said that he was given the custodian job because it was open at the time, and it did not involve contact with children.