On appeal from Division of Youth and Family Services, Department of Human Services.
Approved for Publication August 21, 1997.
Before Judges Skillman, A.a. Rodriguez and Cuff. The opinion of the court was delivered by Skillman, J.A.D.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Skillman
The opinion of the court was delivered by
Blackacre Academy is a private day school for special education students who have exhibited behavioral problems, including physical and verbal abuse of other students and teachers, which make it difficult to educate them in a regular school environment. Dr. John Doe is the primary owner and the principal of Blackacre Academy. Students are placed in Blackacre Academy by local school districts pursuant to N.J.S.A. 18A:46-14(g) and N.J.A.C. 6:28-1.1 to -12.1, and the Department of Education licenses the school and conducts periodic reviews of its operations in accordance with N.J.S.A. 18A:46-15, N.J.S.A. 18A:69-1 to -6 and N.J.A.C. 6:28-5.2, N.J.A.C. 6:28-7.1 to -7.9 and N.J.A.C. 6:28-9.1 to -9.2.
On February 12, 1993, a social worker employed by Blackacre Academy called the "Child Abuse Control Hotline" of the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) to report a violent incident which she had allegedly witnessed between Dr. Doe and J.R., who was one of the students at the school. On March 3, 1993, the same social worker furnished DYFS with the names of other students at Blackacre Academy who allegedly had been abused. On that same day, an assistant regional supervisor of the Institutional Abuse Investigation Unit (IAIU) of DYFS sent a letter to Dr. Doe, notifying him of the allegation of abuse of J.R. and indicating that an investigation was "on-going."
The IAIU subsequently notified the county prosecutor and the local police department of the allegations against Blackacre Academy and all three agencies initiated investigations, consisting primarily of interviews of students, parents, teachers and administrators. Although most of these interviews were conducted in the spring of 1993, the IAIU did not complete its evaluation of the results of the investigation until nearly a year later. *fn2
On April 13, 1994, the IAIU sent a document to the Department of Education, entitled "Institutional Abuse and Neglect Report," which concluded that the allegations of abuse with respect to J.R. had been "substantiated." The report also indicated that allegations of abuse with respect to other students were "unsubstantiated with concerns." The report identified as "other concerns" that "[Blackacre] Academy staff are lacking formal training in the areas of crisis management and passive restraints," that there are "frequent and lengthy suspensions of students" and that some "physical interventions" by one of the "crisis counselors" involved methods which were "potentially dangerous and involved some excessive force." The report concluded with a recommendation that the "Department of Education thoroughly evaluate the [Blackacre] Academy with regard to the various findings of this investigation and take such actions as necessary to address the concerns raised regarding Dr. [Doe's] actions, staff's actions, training, and suspensions."
Although the IAIU did not send copies of the Institutional Abuse and Neglect (IAN) Report to Dr. Doe or the parents of the students who were subjects of the report, it sent them letters which summarized the results of its investigation. The letter to J.R.'s mother stated in part:
Physical abuse was substantiated related to staff's actions. ... Other concerns were noted as a result of the investigation. As you are aware, [J.R.] sustained multiple superficial injuries as a result of this incident. Dr. [Doe's] actions were unjustified and inappropriate and placed [J.R.] at unnecessary and undue risk of serious harm.
The New Jersey Department of Education has been notified of this finding.
The letter to the other parents whose children had been subjects of the IAIU investigation were similar, except that those letters stated that "physical and emotional abuse was unsubstantiated with concerns related to staff's action."
The letter to Dr. Doe, which was signed by the "Administrator" of the IAIU, stated in part:
On 2/17/93, the Division's Institutional Abuse Investigation Unit ... received allegations of physical and emotional abuse at [Blackacre Academy].
An investigation was conducted. Physical abuse was substantiated regarding your actions in accordance with the statutes of the State of New Jersey. Physical/emotional abuse was unsubstantiated with concerns regarding your actions relative to various other students. ... Concerns were also noted regarding a pattern of frequent and lengthy suspensions of students, and it is a concern that [Blackacre] Academy staff are lacking formal training in the areas of crisis management and passive restraints. The New Jersey Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs, has been notified of this finding.
If you have questions regarding this finding, you may contact the Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs.
The letter also noted that under N.J.S.A. 9:6-8.10a, "reports, records, and information concerning child abuse and neglect are confidential" and consequently that "the materials and information contained therein may not be disclosed to the public or to the press either directly, or as part of ...