On appeal from the Commissioner of Education, Department of Education, Docket No. 4-6/10A.
NOT FOR PUBLICATION WITHOUT THE APPROVAL OF THE APPELLATE DIVISION
Telephonically argued January 25, 2012
Before Judges Fisher, Baxter and Nugent.
Appellant William Castel appeals from an October 12, 2010 final agency decision of the Department of Education (Department). The Department approved the recommendation of the State Board of Examiners (State Board) that appellant's teaching and supervisory teaching certificates be permanently revoked because Castel had engaged in a longstanding "inappropriate and reprehensible" personal relationship, albeit not sexual in nature, with two fourteen year-old female students. The Department found that appellant's misconduct was sufficiently intertwined with his teaching responsibilities as to require the revocation of his teaching certificates. We reject appellant's arguments that the agency decision was unsupported by substantial and credible evidence in the record; and that the penalty imposed was excessive and unwarranted. We affirm.
On February 21, 2008, the State Board received from the Department of Law and Public Safety, Division of Criminal Justice (DCJ), formal notification that Castel, a middle school teacher in the East Rutherford School District, had been arrested and charged with two counts of endangering the welfare of a child, N.J.S.A. 2C:24-4(a). The criminal charges were based on appellant's improper personal relationship with two fourteen year-old female students, S.R. and V.V. DCJ also notified the State Board that Dr. Gayle Strauss, the Superintendent of schools in East Rutherford, had filed a petition to revoke Castel's tenure, asserting that he was "guilty of unbecoming conduct" because he "abused [the] public trust and took advantage of his position as a teacher by acting inappropriately" with the two students.
Castel resolved the pending criminal charges by entering, and successfully completing, the pretrial intervention program (PTI). See R. 3:28. As a condition of admission to the PTI program, Castel resigned his teaching position with the East Rutherford school district.
On March 27, 2008, after reviewing the information forwarded by DCJ, the State Board issued an order to show cause, directing appellant to show cause why his teaching certificates should not be permanently revoked. When appellant filed an answer demanding a hearing, the State Board transferred the matter to the Office of Administrative Law (OAL) as a contested case.
Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) JoAnn LaSala Candido conducted hearings on June 23 and October 27, 2009, during which she considered the testimony of Dr. Strauss, S.R., V.V. and both sets of parents. The testimony established that appellant was hired by the East Rutherford Board of Education in September 1987 and held teaching certificates as teacher of industrial arts, teacher of elementary education, as well as a Supervisor certificate, issued in 2006; and Principal certificate, also issued in 2006. During the 2005-06 school year, which was when his improper relationship with S.R. and V.V. began, appellant was a technology shop teacher in grades five through eight. He also assisted with lunchroom duty and in-school detention. During that school year, Castel was S.R. and V.V.'s eighth grade technology shop teacher. He testified that he "developed" a "father daughter" relationship with the two girls. Both testified that throughout the school year, appellant made unwelcome remarks about their physical appearance. According to V.V., on three occasions, he told her that "brunettes are pretty" and every two weeks, told her she "look[ed] nice." These comments made her "uncomfortable."
S.R. testified that "everyday" appellant told her "she was beautiful," and, in a reference to her Latino heritage, he commented that "Spanish girls are attractive." Even though S.R. was uncomfortable with appellant's comments, and thought "maybe he was being . . . perverted," she did not complain because she did not want to be "mean or rude."
On numerous occasions, appellant asked S.R. and V.V.'s science teacher to excuse them from science class so they could accompany him to the technology room to "help [him] on his computer." This occurred on five or six occasions. During those episodes, he took S.R. and V.V. to the technology shop room, where no one else was present. He never asked the girls for help with his computer, even though his computer was the ostensible reason that the girls were excused from their science class. While S.R. and V.V. were alone with appellant in the technology room, he proceeded to tell them "about . . . his life, [and] his girlfriend."
At some point during the 2005-06 school term, appellant asked the girls for their cell phone numbers. On one occasion, appellant and V.V. spoke for approximately 118 minutes on V.V.'s cell phone. Appellant always called V.V. after 9:30 p.m., and the majority of the calls were after 10:00 p.m. V.V. was uncomfortable talking to appellant on the phone because he was her "teacher, and you just don't do that"; she commented that "it felt weird." Additionally, appellant called V.V. to inquire about S.R., demanding to know why S.R. was not answering his calls, and wondering if S.R. was "mad at" him. On several occasions, S.R. was with V.V. when appellant called V.V.'s cell phone asking to speak to S.R. V.V. told appellant that S.R. was not there because "S.R. didn't want to talk to him." V.V.'s parents did not know that appellant, who was one of their daughter's teachers, was repeatedly calling their daughter.
At the end of the 2005-06 school year, when S.R. and V.V. graduated from the school where appellant was employed, he wrote a message in S.R.'s yearbook, which said "[t]here are not enough words to say how I feel about you - you are . . . [a] wonderful and beautiful young lady. Always believe in yourself - you can do and accomplish anything if you work at it. Best of luck in High School. You will be missed[.] Mr[.] "C." Appellant became tearful, gave S.R. a fish keychain as a gift, and told S.R. he was "going to miss [her] so much," and they had "to keep in touch." He then gave her a hug, which she described as so close that their bodies were touching. No one else was present when appellant gave S.R. the gift and hugged her.
During the summer of 2006, appellant called S.R. and V.V. and invited them to lunch, followed by swimming at his townhouse in Nanuet, New York. He told S.R. and V.V. that he wanted to take them swimming because they had been banned from participating in their middle school trip. Rather than knocking on the door of V.V.'s home and running the risk that V.V.'s parents would learn that their daughter was about to go swimming at her teacher's home, across the state line, appellant arranged to meet the girls at his car, which he parked a few hundred feet away from V.V.'s home. Once S.R. and V.V. entered his car, appellant proceeded to drive them to a diner in Rockland County, New York, where the three had lunch.
From there, he drove S.R. and V.V. to his townhouse in Nanuet, and, once inside, showed them where the bathroom was located. V.V. changed into her bikini bathing suit in the bathroom, but S.R. wore a tank top and skirt over her bathing suit and did not enter the community pool. Appellant encouraged S.R. to remove her tank top and skirt and join V.V. in the pool.
Afterward, appellant took the girls back to his townhouse. According to S.R. and V.V., while they were watching television, appellant offered them beer and said "let's party." Appellant testified that he could not recall offering them beer, adding that if he had done so, it was only meant as a joke.
At the end of that day, appellant asked V.V. to "keep quiet" about the trip because "he could get in trouble" if school ...