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Fine Print: Ruiz-Madden Bill Package Protect Students from Sexual Abuse

Hidden video catches union leaders saying they’d protect teachers

Ruiz
State Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz, Democratic chair of the Senate education committee, and State Sen. Fred Madden, chair of the labor committee

What it is: State Sens. Teresa Ruiz and Fred Madden, chairs of the Senate’s education and labor committees, respectively, have proposed a set of six bills that would place new requirements on schools and the state to train, monitor, and enforce student protections against sexual abuse, including by teachers and staff. The bills were taken up by the Senate education committee yesterday.

What it means: The hastily crafted bills come — coming months after a video was released showing teacher union leaders in Hamilton and Union City boasting about how they protect and even cover up for members accused of sexual abuse. The hidden-camera video was taken by the controversial organization headed by conservative activist James O’Keefe, but lawmakers of both parties said no matter the source, the video revealed how greater protections are needed.

Numbers back them up: New Jersey last year saw 31 teachers lose their licenses due child endangerment or sexual misconduct, according to state officials at a hearing last week. Another 20 have lost their licenses this year so far.

It’s ongoing: “Since that hearing last month, we have seen two more cases (of reported teacher sexual abuse),” said Shelley Skinner of Better Education for Kids, an advocacy group that called for the new measures. “We really appreciate the committees’ urgency to pass legislation to ensure the safety of our students.”

What the bills would do: The six bills are a mix of requirements, starting with those calling for specific training about sexual abuse for all staff working with students, as well as state arbitrators adjudicating misconduct charges. Other bills would tighten or close loopholes in the rules for criminal background checks of all new staff and requirements that all suspected misconduct be reported, including to law enforcement. Under one bill, a staff member who fails to report suspected abuse by another could see his or her license revoked or suspended.

Importance of training: Nationally, educators are the likeliest profession to identify and report instances of child abuse. “Yet studies show two-thirds of teachers do not receive training in preventing, reporting, and responding to child abuse,” said Olga Starr of the New Jersey’s Children’s Alliance in testimony before the Senate committee yesterday.

Task force: One bill would create a new state task force on sexual abuse in schools to help provide guidance on proper policies and practices for districts. Another bill would require each district to have such policies.

Protections exist now: The package of bills could be seen as redundant in some cases; there are a host of measures already in place that require reporting of suspected abuse and criminal background checks of all employees. But the bill would go further and, for example, add the background checks on after-school staff and other adults who come in contact with students in school.

Union support: The New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, has been in the cross-hairs of this latest scandal, since it was the leaders of their two locals in Hamilton and Union City who were caught on tape. The statewide union’s leadership has criticized the subterfuge used to take the video and called the incidents anomalies. But it nonetheless has agreed to the proposed measures and yesterday supported the bills without testifying.

Fast track: Each of the bills won unanimous approval by the state Education Committee yesterday, and Ruiz said they will move directly to Senate vote. There are not yet Assembly versions of the bills.

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