Big Education Stories Brewing in NJ

Looks like the Garden State is taking center stage in the education world. Two of the biggest stories in the nation around schools are happening right here.

Start with this astonishing story in Cherry Hill:

After receiving reports that his son had become prone to violent outbursts, Stuart Chaifetz sent autistic 10-year-old Aikan to Horace Mann Elementary School with a recording device.

Akian came back with 6.5 hours of tape filled with verbal and emotional abuse from his classroom aide and teacher. Stuart Chaifetz documented the tape and published it in a YouTube video.

According to Collingswood Patch, Chaifetz replays portions of audio with his son’s special education teacher Kelly Altenburg and aide Jodi Sgouros. In the recording, voices tell Akian that he is “such a bastard,” order him to “shut his mouth,” and tell the child “no” when he asks for reassurances that he will see his father soon.

Stuart Chaifetz has started a website, a Facebook page, and placed a petition on Change.org asking New Jersey legislators to enact a zero tolerance policy for bullying by teachers or educational staff. “I’ve gotten dozens of emails from parents in smiliar situations,” he said, according to babble.com. “Special needs adults are contacting me about teachers bullying them in school.”

Cherry Hill Public School District spokesperson Susan Bastnagel said that the incident is a “personnel matter that the district took seriously and handled appropriately,” according to the Huffington Post. The aide was reportedly fired, but Altenburg was moved to another class.  

According to Fox 8, Chaifetz has no plans to sue, but he would like to see the teachers in the video make a public apology and resign. Recent early research suggests that more than 60 percent of American children with autism spectrum disorders have been bullied, and 47 percent of students from fifth-grade have faced bullying.

Akian Chaifetz has been transferred to another school and is doing quite well, according to reports.

I listened to the audio on Chaifetz’s YouTube post, and it is disturbing. It’s hard to see how any of what’s posted could be justified. But the Cherry Hill school district has given what I consider a measured and reasonable response:

In response to the recent media and social media attention regarding the district and Horace Mann Elementary School and, in an effort to communicate directly with our parents and community, Board of Education President Seth Klukoff and Superintendent Dr. Maureen Reusche presented the following statement at the April 24 Board of Education meeting.

“My fellow Board members and I certainly understand and share the concerns expressed by many members of the community,” said Mr. Klukoff.   “We strongly believe that the district acted swiftly, appropriately and judiciously with regard to the staff in the classroom.  What’s more, we are confident that these decisions were informed first and foremost by compassion for the students. We are proud of the many caring teachers and staff of our district who provide tireless dedication to our children and work ceaselessly to ensure that our classrooms are conducive to learning and growth.”

Dr. Reusche added, “In February, upon receiving a copy of an audio recording, the district undertook a thorough and rigorous investigation and, as we have previously noted, responded swiftly and appropriately.  Although this is a personnel matter and there are specifics that I cannot legally address publicly, I want to assure our parents that the individuals who are heard on the recording raising their voices and inappropriately addressing children no longer work in the district and have not since shortly after we received the copy of the recording.”

I really can’t add any more than this: teaching is a grueling, difficult, and often thankless job – especially when teaching the children who have special needs. But it is always wrong to call a child names in a classroom, no matter the age. We’ll see how this plays out.

Meanwhile, another big story is emerging in Perth Amboy:

Perth Amboy school board members tonight voted to place their outspoken superintendent on paid administrative leave for a string of personnel charges.

Only four of the nine board members voted to remove Janine Caffrey.

Five board members abstained from the vote, with four of them saying they could not vote on personnel issues because they have relatives employed by the board.

The board vote was met with a roar of cheers and applause from the audience, many of them district employees who opposed Caffrey’s attempts to make change. Employees claim Caffrey was ordering changes without staff input.

Members of the Parent Teacher Organization supported Caffrey, saying she tried to move the district forward.

Board president Samuel Lebreault, in a lengthy statement, read 22 allegations against Caffrey, including giving interviews to newspapers and accusing him and another board member of pushing to give district jobs to their friends.

“These attacks are a great disservice to the community,” Lebreault said.

He also said staff morale is at its lowest point.

Caffrey, in a brief statement, called the charges baseless and said she would not give in to attempts to prevent her from doing her job.

“This is not about me,” Caffrey said. “This is about a community that has a long history of difficulty with government and a history of interference with administration. I will not yield.”

Yes, Perth Amboy’s had its issues, but this story isn’t really about that.

Caffrey has been a star witness against tenure for the corporate reformers in New Jersey. Tom Moran at the Star-Ledger tried to make her a folk hero for her stance, but he neglected to mention her qualifications to run Perth Amboy’s schools were less than stellar.

But bashing tenure has its privileges: coming to Caffrey’s aid was B4K, the reformy anti-union group. B4K launched a full-scale PR campaign supporting Caffrey; unfortunately for them, it didn’t work, and Caffrey has been put on a paid leave of absence.

But this story is hardly over. It turns out that Caffrey presided over a contract in Perth Amboy with a firm that has convoluted yet definite connections to B4K. Even if Caffrey gets her job back, questions will remain about her connections to the well-heeled group that fought for her in the press.

In addition, the president of the PABOE, Samuel Lebreault, is under investigation by the state Attorney General’s office for fraud in applying for free school lunches. The charges are similar to those faced by the president of the BOE in Elizabeth – a board that is politically aligned with Chris Christie.

Christie, however, has used Elizabeth as an excuse to radically change the School Funding Reform Act (SFRA), which governs how state aid is distributed to districts. Right now, state aid is distributed through a formula based on school lunch enrollment. Christie’s administration contends that fraud runs rampant in the school lunch program, and he has appointed a woefully inadequate task force to investigate changing how this enrollment is applied.

But now the president of the Perth Amboy BOE is under investigation for school lunch fraud. How very… convenient.

We’ll see how each of these stories plays out in the days ahead. Share your comments below.

Comments (13)

  1. William Weber (WjcW)

    Do you think the teacher in Cherry Hill should be fired?

    I’m thinking that’s probably the appropriate action.

    Rumor has it that they just transferred her to the high school. Do you think that’s appropriate?

    Reply
  2. Bertin Lefkovic

    As horrified as I am by the Cherry Hill story, I am even more horrified by the thought of a future where it could become common practice that children are sent to school wearing recording devices or that there will be security cameras in all classrooms that can be accessed through the internet.

    I understand that this was not the intention of the parent in question, but as education reform rhetoric continues to fixate on teachers as the cause of all of the problems in education, instead of fairly recognizing that the problems facing our education system are broad, complex, and deep, it seems logical to expect that this could be how this situation continues to regress.

    As is, teachers are not paid nearly well enough for the amount of education and hard work that their positions require and budget cuts have made it so that there are not enough teaching jobs in most states for the numbers of teachers in them, so why would anyone of value want to pursue a career in teaching at any time going forward?

    At this rate, the next generation of teachers are going to be people who couldn’t find jobs in the private sector and decided to give alternate route certification a try as they continue to look for work in the private sector.

    Reply
  3. liz

    Actually I think sending kids with recorders who are classified is a brilliant idea.  As a Special Ed Advocate, this story is all too common throughout NJ- The “abuse” special needs children receive from emotional to “harassment” by teachers, staff, other students happens daily to many students in NJ- causing life time scars-  I have been in this business for more than 30 years- and it isn’t getting better.  

    This happens in all the counties  (even the better districts) in NJ.

    Reply
  4. SpecialEd

    Really? Do we really want an attaboy to these guys? Their high school is second worse out of 320 – something in the state. The schools the state had to grab from the locals in Newark and Camden outperform them.

    You might cheer or jeer the personalities here, but this is exactly the sort of situation where government has to step in and say these people aren’t providing effective services for their kids. May be this woman isn’t the answer for these kids, or the union guys like Jazzman think she is a Meanie, but the system in place sure as heck isn’t getting it done.  

    Reply
  5. ken bank

    Will we be looking for bullies underneath our beds the way we looked for commies in the 1950s? Will we accuse people of being bullies the way we accused people of being commies and pinkos? Will we be spying on our neighbor to make sure they’re not being bullies? Has anybody ever seen the Lillian Hellman play “Childrens Hour”? Is that where we’re headed? Do the ends justify the means? Are we headed for “1984” and all the evesdropping that comes with it?

    In the meantime, while we’re trying to figure all this out, check out this story on NJ.com. As I read the article it seems the teacher wasn’t even present at the time the abuse occurred. Two teacher’s aides were responsible, and for all those teacher bashers out there aides are not protected by tenure, so tenure is not an issue and is irrelevant to the discussion. According to the article both teacher aides are no longer working for the district. Another aide and a substitute aide, though not accused of any wrongdoing, are nevertheless tarnished and will likely lose their jobs. Just like McCarthyism, the innocent are punished along with the guilty.

    The bottom line is that the new McCarthyism is being used to advance an anti-teacher, anti-public schools agenda by politicians like Joe Kyrillos and Chris Christie who are already using this incident for their own sinister purposes. And they are using lies and misleading half-truths to get their way.

    Reply

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