MAPLEWOOD, NJ - Three lawsuits have been filed against the South Orange Maplewood School District -- the most recent just two month ago -- by students of a former Columbia High School teacher accused of sexual misconduct with up to six under-aged boys.
Nicole Dufault, who was arrested in September 2014, and is still awaiting trial on related criminal charges, is named in the civil suits along with the school district.
The legal complaints, all filed in just the past 15 months, seek damages for Dufault’s alleged actions, and claims that she coerced the students into performing oral sex, pressured them due to her authority as a teacher, and caused emotional distress and psychological injury.
The lawsuits also claim the school district is at fault for allowing unsupervised areas of Columbia High School (CHS) to be accessible during a 2013 summer program in which many of the incidents allegedly occurred. It contends the sexual acts were able to take place in those areas of the school that lacked supervision.
In addition, the complaints contend the school and the district are liable for the alleged criminal acts because they are required to provide a safe atmosphere for the students.
TAPinto SOMA obtained the lawsuits through a public information request of the school district. All identities of the plaintiffs have been redacted along with the names of their parents who filed on their behalf.
The first lawsuit, filed Sept. 30, 2016, was brought forth by parents of two minor students whose names were not released. It seeks $1 million in compensatory and punitive damages, as well as court and legal costs.
The lawsuit contends both students were victims of sexual assault, abuse and harassment beginning in early August 2014 and lasting for two months. It also claims both were “intellectually disabled” and had “social communication difficulties” and were “vulnerable to sexual harassment.”
The suit contends Dufault engaged in oral sex and sexual intercourse with both students and that complaints were made against Dufault to the district soon after that the district allegedly ignored.
The second lawsuit, also filed in September 2016, was brought on behalf of a third former student who was a freshman in the spring of 2014 when he alleges the abuse began. It claims that the student and other youngsters were invited to cut class and “hangout” in Dufault’s classroom during off periods and that she even used the school computer to change their records so they would not be caught skipping class.
The suit alleges that Dufault “spoke with them about lewd and sexual actions, brushed up again their bodies and touched intimate and personal parts of their bodies in front of other students in the social group.” It also contends she engaged in sexual acts with the students that were video recorded.
As with the previous lawsuit, his complaint also claims the school district is liable because it failed to properly supervise Dufault’s classroom at those times.
The third lawsuit, filed just this past October, was brought on behalf of a fourth former student. It seeks no specific damages, but also contends Dufault abused the male teen.
This alleged victim claims his abuse occurred during the summer of 2013 when Dufault was involved in the summer “Bridge Program,” and included several alleged sexual acts in various CHS locations, as well as Dufault’s car in the CHS parking lot.
The complaint also seeks damages against the school district for failing to properly supervise the high school to prevent such alleged crimes.
Attorneys for the two previous lawsuits could not be reached for comment, but John McDonnell, who represents the fourth plaintiff, said he did not name a damage amount because more information is needed.
“It’s premature to say what we’re seeking,” McDonnell said. “There are two sides to every story, until I hear the other side it is hard for me to evaluate the case.”
Dufault’s attorney, Tim Smith, disagreed with the claims against Dufault and again repeated his ongoing defense that Dufault was the victim. He has in the past cited her suffering from “frontal lobe syndrome,” which he blamed on brain surgery Dufault underwent following complications from her first pregnancy.
“You had a particularly overly aggressive group of students who came into contact with a teacher who suffered from brain damage,” Smith said in an interview.
But he did agree that the unsupervised areas of the high school where the incidents allegedly occurred were part of the problem.
“You had a program that took place in an isolated part of the school where there was nobody there to control the situation, then you couple that with the fact that the school never screened her post-brain surgery,” Smith said. “She also had a home front situation that was troubled with her husband having been arrested and she was taking care of the kids herself. You had a whirlwind of events that led to this victimization of her.”
Asked to comment on the lawsuits, School District Spokeswoman Suzanne Turner issued the following statement via email:
The allegations are deeply disturbing. The nature of the charges are the most difficult that schools, parents and children would ever have to discuss together.
By law, administrators and Board of Education members are not permitted to publicly discuss personnel or individual student matters, ongoing litigation, or other issues requiring confidentiality. However, we can affirm we believe deeply in our mission to provide our students with a safe and healthy learning environment. We are hopeful that the process will bring closure to this painful chapter in our community’s history.
The school district like most other districts has liability insurance that would likely cover any damages.