"Safer Schools Bill" Passes First Hurdle in State Senate

State Senator Joseph Pennacchio (L) and Assemblyman Jay Webber (R) Credits: Courtesy of Sen. Pennacchio and Asm. Webber
State Senator Joseph Pennacchio (L) and Assemblyman Jay Webber (R) in Trenton Credits: Courtesy of Assemblyman Jay Webber

MONTVILLE, NJ – Following no movement on his bill in the year 2017, Assemblyman Jay Webber’s anti-teacher abuse bill, created at the urging of former Montville mayor Jim Sandham, has seen its first hurdle surmounted. The bill, created in part due to William Mason Elementary School first grade teacher Jason Fennes and other predatory teachers, requires school districts to review the employment history of prospective employees to discover allegations of child abuse or sexual misconduct. It has recently passed in the Senate Education Committee, after being co-sponsored in that committee by Senator Joseph Pennacchio (R-26) and Anthony R. Bucco (R-25).

Fennes was a teacher at William Mason School and has been convicted of sexually molesting five female students and sentenced to 14 years in prison, according to Webber at the committee hearing. Fennes was then hired by a private school that confirmed his employment, but Montville was bound by a separation agreement preventing them from informing the private school of his past infractions, Webber said.

The bill (S2917 or A4442 dated Jan. 2017) would require school districts to share information about sexual misconduct and child abuse investigations unless the claims were proven to be false or unsubstantiated, and grant school districts legal immunity. It would also ban the separation agreements that force districts to destroy or withhold information about those probes, according to a release from Webber (R-26).

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“Mr. Fennes was a track coach at Butler High School,” Webber testified before the state Senate Education Committee on Jan. 25 in Trenton. “Mr. Fennes engaged in a sexual relationship with one of his students. Before it could be discovered, he resigned and applied for employment in Montville.

“Montville hired him, he obtained tenure and began teaching first graders. On several occasions the school district was informed that Mr. Fennes was engaging in inappropriate behavior with his students, including touching them, kissing them, having them sit on his lap and having them over to his house. His misdeeds were reported to DYFS at the time but no conclusion of abuse was made. Montville conducted its own investigation and found even more disturbing incidents of Mr. Fennes’ behavior and began the process of terminating Mr. Fennes’ employment. 

“Before that process could finish, the Board of Education and Mr. Fennes reached an agreement whereby Mr. Fennes would resign, and Montville would not share any details of his resignation with a future employer. In essence, he was given a neutral reference.

“When Mr. Fennes applied to Cedar Hill Preparatory School, that school only checked the dates of employment with Montville in 2010. In the fall of 2010 he had allegations made against him by parents at Cedar Hill Prep of inappropriate conduct with his first grade students, and in February 2012 he was arrested. He pleaded guilty to molesting at least six children in the three districts in which he worked.

“We have a problem in New Jersey – we have a problem nationwide. The system we have set up for employing teachers in this state encourages the practice of child molesters stopping the process of their disciplinary hearings before they can be found guilty – before charges against them can be substantiated. In the process of resigning, getting the school district to provide them a neutral reference and moving on to the next school district which may be totally unaware of that molester’s activities with the previous employer.

“Several other states have enacted laws like the one you have before you today, which forces employers to share the information with future employers,” Webber said.

Webber said the bill is modeled after the Pennsylvania statute which was adopted unanimously.

Betsy Ginsburg of the Garden State Coalition of Schools testified at the hearing, “We feel this bill gives districts and administrators additional tools to ensure the safety and security of our students from predators.”

Jonathan Pushman of the New Jersey School Boards Association said at the hearing that the focus of that group has been the implementation, and several of the amendments they had requested had been added to the bill, including adding private schools to the bill, and bringing in an employee on a conditional basis if the investigation of an employee had “hit a roadblock,” he said. He said some immunity provisions had also been included. Pushman said the NJSBA also asked for clauses so the NJ Department of Education could play a more active role, including a standardized form and providing guidance. Another amendment the NJSBA had requested was clear definitions of child abuse and sexual misconduct.

Debra Bradley of the NJ Principal and Supervisors Association and Melanie Schulz of the NJ Association of School Administrators said at the hearing that their groups supported the bill as amended.

Rush Russell, Executive Director of Prevent Child Abuse New Jersey, said several groups support the bill including the County Prosecutors Association, the New Jersey PTA, the YMCA Alliance, the Court Appointed Alliance, Cares Institute and others. However, he objected to the use of the word “unsubstantiated” due to recent events and the MeToo movement, because “Using the standard of only substantiated cases would protect the offenders, and these individuals would be able to keep their crimes secret and keep their jobs in our schools. By definition, many of these crimes are never reported [to the police].”  

Chairman Teresa Ruiz said, “Before I cast my vote, I’d like to thank the sponsors for the work they’ve done, and it seems that you’ll continue to do, to listen to some of the concerns expressed by stakeholder groups. Just this week, in a different issue, but the fact that our schools are not safe [due to] school shootings […]. When we drop our kids off in an environment when we go to work, we want to be secure that they are safe. That is the least that we can do when they go into a school building. So thank you for making sure that we move in those steps to be sure that every school here in the garden state is a safe haven for all of our children. I vote yes.”

The committee voted unanimously to pass the bill to the Senate floor. The bill must also go to the Assembly Education Committee, Webber told TAPinto Montville.

The committee amended the bill to:

  • Include a definition of “child abuse” and “sexual misconduct”;
  • require nonpublic schools to adhere to the requirements of the bill;
  • provide that the prospective employer, in conducting the review of the employment history of an out-of-State applicant, will make and document efforts to verify the information provided by the applicant and obtain from any out-of-State employers the requested information;
  • Clarify that the review of the employment history may be conducted through telephonic, electronic, or written communications;
  • Provide that if employment history information is requested and that information is not provided in the 20-day timeframe, it may be grounds for the disqualification of an applicant; 
  • Provide that an employer will not be liable for any claims brought by an applicant or employee who is not offered employment or whose employment is terminated because of information received regarding sexual misconduct or child abuse, or due to the inability of an employer to conduct a full review of the applicant’s employment history;
  • Provide that an employer has the right to terminate a person’s employment or rescind an offer of employment if the person is offered employment or commences employment after the effective date of the bill and the information regarding sexual misconduct or child abuse is subsequently discovered or obtained; 
  • Provide procedures for employing a person on a provisional basis pending review of an applicant’s employment history;
  • Require the Department of Education to establish a public awareness campaign regarding provisions of the act and to develop forms which may be used to comply with the bill’s requirements; and,
  • Revise the effective date to have the bill be effective on the first day of the second month following enactment, rather than immediately.

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