After ex-principal accused of rape — again — NJ parents question school safety
HILLSBOROUGH — School officials in this Somerset County community are considering new policies to protect students in the wake of allegations that a former principal raped a 4th-grade student numerous times in his office years ago.
These are the second such accusations that the now-retired Matthew Hoffman has faced in his career in the state.
Schools Superintendent Jorden Schiff and the Board of Education promised to begin taking action this month after several concerned parents suggested that the district conduct more frequent background checks and adopt a policy prohibiting one-on-one meetings between employees and students.
The parents pushed the school board during a public meeting July 31 after New Jersey 101.5 exposed a recent lawsuit by a former special-needs student who says she was repeatedly raped by the former Woodfern Elementary School principal in 2006.
Although this is the second time that Hoffman has been accused of raping a student, both accusations were made in lawsuits, not criminal complaints. Hoffman has never been charged with a crime. New Jersey 101.5 learned that several years after Hoffman's 2009 retirement, Hillsborough police investigated the girl's accusations but never brought charges against him.
It is not clear why Hoffman was never prosecuted because Hillsborough police are keeping their report secret and the Somerset County Prosecutor's Office has declined to comment on the case. New Jersey 101.5 could not find a phone number or address to reach Hoffman for comment.
Hoffman was first sued months before his retirement by a man who said Hoffman raped him for years in the 1980s, when Hoffman was a teacher in the Hopewell Valley school district. In 2015, a jury found Hoffman at fault and awarded the victim $300,000 in damages. The jury, however, did not find Hopewell Valley liable.
The new lawsuit, which goes after the Hillsborough district in addition to Hoffman, accuses the district of not doing enough to stop Hoffman's abuse. News of the litigation rocked Hillsborough this summer, raising questions about the district's policies and the reliability of background checks.
Tracking arrested teachers
All school employees, including school bus drivers, are required by the state to be fingerprinted and undergo a criminal background check when they apply for a job. Applicants who have been found guilty of certain crimes cannot be hired. School employees who who are found guilty of certain crimes can be fired and have their teaching certifications revoked.
In the case of Hoffman, a background check would have turned up clean because he was never charged with a crime.
But if someone in Hoffman's former positions were to be arrested, state education and law enforcement officials say school districts and education contractors would be notified, even if the worker does not volunteer that information to their employer.
According to State Police spokesman Jeff Flynn, whenever someone applies for an education job in the state, their fingerprints are taken and flagged in a database as those belonging to an educator.
"If an existing teacher is then arrested and fingerprinted in New Jersey, the flag will generate an automatic electronic notification to the Department of Education for review," Flynn said.
The Department of Education's Criminal History Review Unit then investigates that notification and notifies the defendant's employer if the arrest is one of the so-called "disqualifying offenses" under state law.
Those offenses include all first and second-degree crimes; any sexual, child abuse or drug crimes; and a range of third-degree offenses including reckless endangerment, terroristic threats, criminal restraint, luring, criminal mischief, resisting arrest, burglary, usury, perjury, threats and conspiracy to commit any of these crimes. Charges from other states also count.
Employees who are arrested can be suspended from their jobs. Those found guilty can lose their jobs. And even those found not guilty can still be fired if school officials find that they violated school policies.
The law applies not only to teachers and administrators but to school bus drivers and employees of contract service providers who come into contact with students, says Department of Education spokesman David Saenz Jr.
Saenz says the Motor Vehicle Commission is also notified of charges against bus drivers.
The unit also conducts regular audits of school districts and contractors to make sure all employees have had a background check.
'Common sense' enough?
Duina Llanes, a Hillsborough parent whose child is about to start school for the first time next month, says she understands the limitations of background checks.
"I get it. You're not going to catch everything through a background check. You are not going to catch everything through the application process," she said.
But Llanes says schools can adopt policies that reduce the risk of children being abused.
"Ninety-nine percent of the teachers are amazing and would never fall in that bucket. But it takes one individual one time. I can't image having that be my child. That’s what we are trying to prevent."
Another township mother, Jessica Esteves, asked district officials during the July 31 school board meeting whether schools have policies prohibiting teachers and administrators from meeting with individual students alone behind closed doors.
Schiff said "common sense" should inform employees not to do that, while a school board member said she believed district policies did prevent that.
A review of the district's policies, however, turned up no such rule.
The district's policy on "inappropriate staff conduct" says employees should not engage in "inappropriate" comments or conduct. The policy also warns against staff providing students with transportation in their personal vehicle or "seek to be in the presence of a pupil beyond the staff member's professional responsibilities."
Hillsborough's policy is a word-for-word copy of policies other school districts post on their websites, including in neighboring Montgomery.
Other institutions that deal with children are more explicit in barring adults from being alone with children.
"Our policies are designed for the protection of children; and therefore, our employees are not permitted to be alone with a single child where he or she cannot be observed by others," Somerset County YMCA President and CEO David M. Carcieri said in an email.
After the July 31 meeting, Schiff told parents that the school board's committees would discuss the policy suggestions before their Aug. 21 public meeting.
The district has declined to comment on the lawsuit, which was filed by the now-adult woman using the alias "Jane Doe."
But district attorney Robert Gold told New Jersey 101.5 that district officials “immediately notified law enforcement” when they learned of the allegations from the former student’s father and that the district had no way of knowing about the allegations of Hoffman's conduct at his former school district because the accusations did not come to light until the first publicized lawsuit in 2009, which was more than a decade after Hillsborough had hired him.
Llanes and other parents, however, said district officials should be more forthcoming.
"I don't feel the town or the Board of Educuation is proactive in keeping us parents informed of what's going on in school," Llanes said after the meeting. "I found out about this principal and teacher on 101.5."
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email email@example.com.
Also on WOBM: