Education

Former SOMA School Staffer Facing Criminal Charges For Alleged Lewd Photos of Students

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MAPLEWOOD, NJ - A former Jefferson Elementary School paraprofessional has been charged with criminal behavior believed to be related to lewd photos of students at the school that were found on his cell phone after he was arrested in Morris County on an unrelated sexual charge.

It also appears that South Orange Maplewood School District officials knew about the arrests as early as December 2017, but did not tell parents until April 2018, and have still declined to provide more details or information on the charges possibly involving Jefferson students’ images.

The suspect, 21-year-old Kenneth Palmer of Randolph, was arrested back on Sept. 28, 2017, at a Shop Rite in Succasunna and later charged with two counts of sexual assault of a four-year-old, two counts of endangering the welfare of a child, and two counts of lewdness observed by a child under 13, according to a Succasunna police report. 

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The police report said he "appeared to be attempting to get each juvenile to take note of what he was doing while at the same time attempting to avoid being observed by the juveniles' respective parents."

He reportedly admitted to the lewd acts, but when officers searched his cell phone following his arrest, they reportedly found “upskirt pictures of females, including a student,” according to NJ.com. The phone also allegedly had videos and photos of Palmer masturbating in front of students as he walked through school hallways, but it was unclear if those included Jefferson students. 

The Essex County Prosecutor’s Office on Wednesday confirmed Palmer has been charged with sexual assault by contact, but did not have more details on the alleged incidents.

The images on his cell phone allegedly included Palmer masturbating outside a bathroom door as two students, an 8-year-old and a 9-year-old, walked out of the bathroom past him, a police report said.

He was in court Monday to face the Morris County charges, but the case was postponed at the request of his lawyer, who cited a need to handle the other charges in Essex County.

Palmer remains behind bars in Morris County. His next court date is scheduled for July 23.

In a letter to Jefferson parents in April 2018, interim South Orange Maplewood Superintendent Thomas Ficarra stated that the district had been notified in December 2017 of the arrest, but did not inform parents earlier because of a request from “law enforcement” that “explicitly directed us not to discuss this matter during the investigation.” 

The letter added that because charges were filed against Palmer in April, it was okay to reveal the case, although it did not identify him. It also did not state the seriousness of the allegations or that they involved potential lewd criminal behavior with student photos.

Ficarra noted that Palmer had worked for the district as a paraprofessional from February 2017 to September 2017, but did not clarify if he was still an employee of the district when he was arrested.

Since criminal charges were filed against the paraprofessional in Essex County last week, we are now permitted to provide you with limited information,” the April letter added. “However, we have been directed not to release any specific details or the names of specific individuals relevant to the case.” No specifics or charges were released and Palmer was not even named.

All South Orange Maplewood School District paraprofessionals, who work with special education students in many cases, are hired through an outside contractor, not the district itself.

“It should also be noted that, as required by State Law, the paraprofessional was cleared to work by the NJ Department of Education Criminal History Review Unit prior to being assigned to work at Jefferson,” the April letter said. “We understand that the confidentiality required by the legal process can be frustrating, and appreciate your patience and support.”

After Palmer’s court appearance this week, more interest and concerns were raised by parents about the incidents allegedly involving Jefferson students photos and why they were not informed earlier.

The school district sent an additional letter to Jefferson parents on Tuesday, but it offered few details. The letter stated, in part:

The release of further details from a police report about allegations of criminal misconduct by a former paraprofessional at Jefferson has understandably prompted questions and concerns.  The nature of the charges is among the most difficult that schools, parents and children would ever have to discuss together. 

Some details which have been reported in the press were not provided to Administration by law enforcement, which conducted the investigations along with DCPP.  The videos were in possession of law enforcement and were never shared with District staff, so the District is in no position to comment on the content.  As Dr. Ficarra wrote in April, law enforcement and related State Agencies contacted directly any parent, child or staff member with whom they needed to speak about the allegations.

We would like to reiterate that District administrators have been specifically directed by the Prosecutor’s Office to not discuss the case until after the paraprofessional in question was charged, and then to only discuss limited information.  We understand that the confidentiality required by the legal process can be frustrating.

School district officials have yet to provide any comment or respond to more detailed questions about the situation.

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