MAPLEWOOD, NJ - South Orange-Maplewood school officials are defending their lack of candor about a former Maplewood teacher's aide who was charged with several lewd acts involving minors, including sexually assaulting them in a Roxbury supermarket last year.
A June 19 report on NJ.com about the charges facing the former paraprofessional, 21-year-old Kenneth Palmer, prompted school officials to explain why they gave only cursory information about the incidents: They said law enforcement officials didn’t tell them everything and asked them to be circumspect about the details they did know.
Palmer, of Randolph, worked at the Jefferson Elementary School in Maplewood. He previously worked as a senior aide at the Randolph Community School but resigned in January 2017, according to school district records.
Palmer was charged Sept. 28, 2017 with two counts of sexual assault of a child less than four years old, two counts of endangering the welfare of a child and two counts of lewdness observed by children under 13, according to an arrest report provided by Roxbury police,
Sleazy Stuff in the Succasunna ShopRite
The incidents leading to the charges took place at the Succasunna ShopRite, says the police report. Roxbury police did not provide TAPinto Roxbury with a description of Palmer’s alleged actions, but NJ.com - citing a police report it obtained - said Palmer was accused of masturbating in the supermarket “and trying to get the attention of young girls, one an 8-year-old and the other a toddler between the ages of 2 and 3.”
The police report said Palmer "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," according to the news site.
It said the report notes that Palmer’s actions were caught on store security cameras and that Palmer admitted to masturbating in the store.
The police documents said a search of Palmer’s cellphone revealed “upskirt” photos of girls, including a 9-year-old student, as well as photos and videos showing himself masturbating in school hallways, in full view of students, according to the news site.
It appears 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 Essex County Prosecutor’s Office on Wednesday confirmed Palmer has been charged with sexual assault by contact, but it did not provide more details. Palmer remains behind bars in the Morris County jail pending a July 23 court appearance.
In a letter to parents in April 2018, interim South Orange-Maplewood Superintendent Thomas Ficarra said the district was notified in December 2017 about Palmer’s September arrest. Ficarra said the district 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 additional charges were filed against Palmer in April, it was okay to reveal the case, although the district did not identify Palmer in its statement. It also did not state the seriousness of the allegations or that they involved potential lewd criminal behavior impacting students.
Ficarra noted that Palmer worked for the district as a paraprofessional from February 2017 to September 2017 but did not clarify whether 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 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.”
News Report Prompts Parent Pressure
After Palmer’s court appearance last week was reported by NJ.com, more interest and concerns were raised by parents about the incidents reportedly involving Jefferson students. People wanted to know why they were not informed earlier.
On Tuesday, the school district sent a new letter to Jefferson parents, 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.