On appeal from a Final Decision of the State Board of Education.
Antell, Dreier and Brochin. The opinion of the court was delivered by Dreier, J.A.D.
[231 NJSuper Page 367] Petitioner, Richard Wolf, appeals from a decision of the State Board of Education dismissing him from his position as a tenured fifth grade teacher in the National Park Elementary School. Wolf had been charged by the Board with "unbecoming conduct," a violation of N.J.S.A. 18A:6-11, in response to complaints by some of his male and female fifth grade students that he had been "feeling the backs of girls to see if they were wearing bras" and "at times touching the buttocks of girls." He denied the charges. After a hearing in the Office of Administrative Law, the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) issued her initial decision, and recommended that Wolf be "removed from his position." The Commissioner of Education
affirmed that decision,*fn1 and the State Board adopted the Commissioner's decision without further opinion.
Prior to the hearing of the student witnesses before the ALJ, petitioner was summarily excluded from the courtroom, but was provided with a closed-circuit television hookup by which he could view and hear the proceedings. He did not, however, have any method of conferring with his attorney, who remained in the courtroom. If the attorney wished to speak to petitioner, the proceedings had to be halted and counsel had to leave the room for such a conference. As we have found this exclusion of petitioner to have been unwarranted upon the findings of the ALJ, and the procedural safeguards to petitioner's rights inadequate, we are reversing and remanding the matter for a new hearing. We have, however, reviewed the facts in detail to show the prejudicial effect of this procedural determination.
Petitioner had been a teacher with the National Park Board of Education since September 1, 1969. His record prior to the events alleged in these proceedings was unblemished.
On May 28, 1986, National Park Elementary School Principal Raymond Bider received two letters, one anonymous and another signed "by a few girls," complaining of "some name-calling" that Wolf did in class. Bider discussed the matter with the Superintendent of Schools and then with Wolf. The next day Wolf and Bider agreed that Wolf could "handle the matter" by speaking to the children at the end of the day. That night at a school concert Bider talked with one of the girls, A.E., who told him that Wolf had "yelled" at the students. This complaint developed into a third charge against Wolf, which the ALJ dismissed.
On June 3rd, A.E. told another teacher, Susan Slawter, that Wolf "is touching me and I don't like it. I want him to stop . . .
he touches my back. He feels to see if I'm wearing a bra." On June 4th, several more children spoke to another teacher, Cathleen Allison, about "some things in Wolf's classes." Those "things" included complaints from the children that Wolf brought in subscription-order forms from Playboy (this claim was determined to be unfounded); looked up the girls' dresses;*fn2 allowed the classes to watch too much television and too many videos (this claim was not pursued); called students "dumbo ears," "big mouth," and "fat slob;" unfastened one girl's bra; snapped the bra straps of several girls; and spanked another.*fn3
Allison spoke to Bider, and at Bider's request the children wrote down their complaints. Bider notified the Superintendent of Schools, who requested that Allison and Slawter write down what they knew of the children's complaints. The children, through Allison, requested a meeting with Bider, which was held June 6th. All 45 of the fifth-grade students at school on June 6th attended the meeting, as did Susan Slawter, the school nurse, two other teachers, and Allison and Bider.
The Superintendent met with Allison, Slawter and the principal, and then called the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS). Despite his protests that the allegations were untrue, Wolf was suspended with pay, effective June 10th, while DYFS investigated the matter. After receiving DYFS's ...