NJ school nixes yoga after touching complaints against gym teacher
CLINTON TOWNSHIP — An elementary school gym teacher who was suspended and investigated over charges of inappropriately touching students performing yoga poses lost his bid to get a salary raise.
A decision released this year by the state Public Employment Relations Commission did not identify the teacher at the Round Valley School by name. The educator, who was never charged with a crime, appealed the district's decision to withhold his raise and put him on a corrective action plan.
The corrective action plan was put in place, according to the district, because over the course of the 2015-2016 school year both the district and the local police department investigated reports that the teacher had inappropriately touched students during class. While students claimed the man was touching them in ways that made them uncomfortable, the teacher said he was only trying to help improve their positions.
The commission said a review the teacher got at the end of the 2015-2016 school year noted a complaint by a sixth grade student that the teacher had inappropriately touched her. At that time, the teacher was suspended with pay, and the incident was investigated by the district, the state Division of Child Protection and Permanency and the Clinton Township Police.
Students said the teacher made them feel "uncomfortable" in the way he acted. They said during stretching the man was "looking like a stripper," and that he "acts weird" during classes.
The teacher admitted to touching students, but said it was only "by placing his fingers on her knee." The student, however, said he put his hands "on the front and back of her thigh."
The state labor commission said that while the investigation determined the claims of sexual abuse to be unfounded, the students did note that he made the students "uncomfortable" in his class, which was "not conducive to creating a positive learning environment."
As a result of the accusations, the district discontinued yoga lessons and teachers were told to not touch students "in any way."
The district's supervisor of instruction met with the teacher and "reinforced" these policies with the teacher. This included telling the teacher that the exercises and contact with the students "were placing him and the school in situations where both were vulnerable to allegations of misconduct," according to the commission's decision.
In June 2016, the principal put the teacher on a corrective action plan. The plan included "creating an environment of respect and rapport" and modeling "respectful interactions," by not touching students.
Three days after the plan was put in place, the Board of Education voted to withhold his salary and salary adjustment for the 2016-2017 school year.
On July 5, of the Clinton Township Education Association, the labor union representing teachers, filed a grievance claiming that the board had taken the steps "without just cause." After the board denied the grievance, the association filed a request for arbitration, which the board opposed because administrators are allowed to evaluate teacher performance.
The union also claimed that only teachers who received ratings of "ineffective" or "partially ineffective" could be put on a corrective action plan.
In its decision, the commission said that even though the complaints of abuse were deemed to be unfounded, that did not change the concerns that had been raised about the teacher. They also said these concerns gave the board the right to institute the improvement plan. The commission also said there is nothing saying boards can't put teachers who are rated as "effective" or "highly effective" on action plans to address possible areas of improvement.
Calls to the district for comment were not returned Monday.
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Contact reporter Adam Hochron at 609-359-5326 or Adam.Hochron@townsquaremedia.com