New Jersey administrative law judge recommends teacher suspended for Facebook postings about her students be terminated

According to The Record, Administrative Law Judge Ellen Bass has ruled that elementary school teacher Jennifer O’Brien, who referred to her first-grade students “future criminals” in a Facebook post, should be discharged from her tenured position. “O’Brien has demonstrated a complete lack of sensitivity to the world in which her students live,” Bass said. “The sentiment that a 6-year-old will not rise above the criminal element that surrounds him cuts right to the bone.” Bass also noted that O’Brien failed to express genuine remorse during her August 2011 hearing. “I came away with the impression that O’Brien remained somewhat befuddled by the commotion she had created,” the judge wrote.

According to Bass, with sensitivity training, O’Brien  could return to a public school classroom, but not in Paterson, due to her damaged relationship with the community. The judge also found that the district’s need to efficiently operate its schools outweighed O’Brien’s right to free speech. “In a public education setting, thoughtless words can destroy the partnership between home and school that is essential to the mission of the schools,” she said.

New Jersey’s education commissioner has a 45-day window to accept, reject, or modify Judge Bass’s ruling. O’Brien’s lawyer, Nancy Oxfeld, plans to appeal the decision to the commissioner. Oxfeld said O’Brien’s words had been misinterpreted and that she never thought her students would become criminals. The teacher was concerned about a few students’ behavior and believed they needed help, the lawyer said. “The judge found Ms. O’Brien had somehow ruined her relationship with the Paterson community such that she could never go back to teach there,” Oxfeld said. “There were a few incidents and a lot of news trucks for one day. We don’t think there would be any problem at all.”

Paterson school district spokeswoman Terry Corallo said the district welcomed the judge’s ruling. “Providing for a safe and caring environment at all of our schools is one of this district’s top priorities,” she said. “This particular case required immediate action and we are pleased with the judge’s decision.”

Source: The Record, 11/8/11, By Leslie Brody

[Editor's Note: In April 2011, Legal Clips summarized an article in the Christian Science Monitor reporting that Paterson school district had suspended O'Brien while it investigated charges from parents that she wrote on Facebook about feeling like a “warden” and referred to her students as future criminals.]

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