Schools Need to “Ace” New Jersey’s New Employee Background Law

In a cautionary tale for all school districts in New Jersey, on August 21, 2018, a Federal court ruled a $600,000 settlement must be paid by that school district’s taxpayers and not its insurance carrier because the district failed to notify authorities and agreed not to tell potential future employers about a teacher’s resignation stemming from sex abuse allegations involving students. Jason Fennes, the former Montville teacher was subsequently sentenced to 14 years in prison after leaving the Montville School District after admitting to sexually assaulting 6 students in three different schools.

“Schools must provide a safe environment where children can learn,” noted Wil Donio, Esquire chairman of the Education Law Practice Group at Cooper Levenson, P.A. “What you know, but don’t say, can hurt you and others.”

On finding Montville School District’s insurance carrier Zurich American not responsible for paying this settlement,  U.S. District Court Judge Kevin McNulty ruled Zurich did not have a duty to defend the school district because it knew about “abusive acts” prior to the effective date of the policy and failed to disclose the same.  The underlying lawsuit filed by the student alleges the teacher engaged in “various acts of sexual molestation and/or child abuse against other students…and caused the student’s exposure to a known pedophile and child molester.”

The Montville suit was one of several in New Jersey which precipitated the passage of the “Pass the Trash” Law on June 1, 2018.  All New Jersey public, charter, and private schools, as well as contract service providers holding a contract with a school, must comply with stringent background requirements for all applicants for employment having contact with students.  This includes, but is not limited to, teachers, administrators, janitors, bus drivers, lunch staff, and aides.

Among other requirements, schools must obtain from applicants employment information including any prior school employment or jobs that involved regular contact with children for the past 20 years, a written authorization requesting release of information from prior employers, and a written statement certifying whether  the applicant has ever been the subject of a child abuse or sexual misconduct investigation by any employer, law enforcement agency, licensing agency or the Department of Children and Families.

Cooper Levenson can assist school districts and contractors comply with the “Pass the Trash” law as well as provide training seminars on a variety of  school issues for your employees. For more information, please contact Sean F. Dalton, Esquire at (609)344-3161.