NJ Teachers Reinstated, Given Back Pay After Calling Students ‘Negroes’
MOUNT OLIVE— After allegedly calling students “Negroes,” two long-time Mount Olive High School physical education teachers have been given their jobs and tenure back and will be entitled to 17 months back pay.
Brigitte Geiger and Sharon Jones were fired by the state education commissioner in 2013 after the local board of education brought charges against the pair. Two female students claimed that the teachers shouted racial remarks in a locker room in March 2012, with former field hockey coach Geiger allegedly saying "they're a bunch of Negroes, Negroes, Negroes." Both teachers denied the allegations.
A state appeals court in 2015 overturned their firings, ruling that the pair's behavior was "unbecoming" for teachers but that the firing and tenure removal was "too harsh." The court said that teachers in similar circumstances had not been fired.
In a final decision issued on June 6, the state education commissioner determined the pair should serve a total unpaid suspension of 10 months.
However, the teachers had both served 27 months of suspension before being reinstated by the board of education in January, meaning they are now entitled to 17 months of back pay. Their attorney, Alan Zegas, told NJ Advance Media that he estimates that back pay to total $200,000.
In the state education commissioner's decision, the teachers noted that the racial remarks were not directed at students and not intended to be heard.
The board disagrees with the state education commissioner's decision, saying Jones and Geiger's behavior "cannot be tolerated."
The board argued that the teachers should serve 27 months of unpaid suspension plus additional penalties, such as sensitivity training, according to the decision. The board compared Jones and Geiger's actions to that of Franklin Township science teacher Madhumita Chaki who was fired for allegedly making racially insensitive remarks during a lesson.
Marc Zitomer, the board's attorney, says the state commissioner's decision send the message.
"It sends the wrong message to the school community where the Board and the Administration has worked very hard to convey through policy and other means that the District has no tolerance for this type of biased behavior," Zitomer said.
"The Board points out that back pay of any sort would not be a penalty and would instead punish the District for appropriately pursuing tenure charges," reads the decision.
Jones and Geiger filed a lawsuit in October 2015 claiming their dismissal was actually a case of age discrimination. The two have been working in administrative assistants roles in the high school since January.