Lawmakers criticized the top staffer at the New Jersey Education Association for emphasizing at a hearing Thursday that false statements and pretenses were used to obtain hidden-camera videos of local union leaders bragging about protecting teachers accused of sexual abuse.

The NJEA said it takes the safety of children seriously and is investigating, despite its distrust of Project Veritas.

“We have to change the culture of individuals who think that their main priority is to protect the worst,” said Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex.

New Jersey Education Association executive director Ed Richardson said there is no place in the public schools for people who abuse children and that teachers have a legal and moral responsibility to report any suspicion that a student is being abused.

But he said the union also has a legal obligation to represent any union members who are accused.

“NJEA’s legal duty to protect the well-being students and our duty to represent members are not optional,” Richardson said. “And they are not mutually exclusive. We must do both.”

Richardson said some allegations prove to be false – like the ones Project Veritas cited in its hidden-camera videos. He said the scenarios presented in the videos never occurred.

“We are deeply disappointed by how two of our local affiliate presidents appear to have reacted to those allegations, but we are also troubled by the dishonest and underhanded tactics used by the organization that secretly recorded those leaders,” Richardson said.

The two union leaders in the videos, from Union City in Hudson County and Hamilton Township in Mercer County, resigned those posts and have been suspended from their teaching jobs without pay.

“Despite the dishonest tactics used to obtain and edit the videos, some of what was said on them appeared to fall far short of our values and the standards we set for union, its leaders and its members,” Richardson said.

Ruiz said nobody can be set up to say the things portrayed on the hidden-camera videos.

“And I’m not defending the firm or the company who does this, or what their angle is, but you cannot be set up to have this kind of mentality,” Ruiz said.

Richardson said that’s why the union is taking serious action. The NJEA hired the Zazzali law firm to conduct an independent review of its child-abuse training and policies.

“I don’t minimize what went on there,” Richardson said. “Yes, some of the words that were used, you can’t ignore, and we’re not.”

Richardson said a summary of findings and recommendations will be shared publicly. He said the review is in its beginning phase but that the union asked that it be performed quickly so recommendations can be included in any training programs it conducts over the summer.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said Project Veritas provided the Legislature the unedited video of the interviews.

“We asked Project Veritas for the video. They gave it to us,” Sweeney said. “It’s only to be reviewed by the members of the committee, and they’re not allowed to share it. They didn’t hide it. We asked them for it. We could have subpoenaed it, but we asked them for it and they gave it to us.”

Nobody from Project Veritas testified at the hearing.

Richardson said its experts concluded the videos that were released to the public contained 26 edits, sometimes in the middle of sentences.

Ruiz said she had the opportunity to view the videos.

“It is some of the most disturbing conversation that in my entire life I have had to be witness to,” Ruiz said. “What bothers me in all of this is that I am sure that this is just a small sliver of who we are here in the Garden State, but if we don’t work to eradicate this kind of thought, to fix this, to create policy to secure, then it really just ruins the entire bunch.”

“And so I hope that at the end of this, we don’t come out talking about protecting people who work in school districts this way, that we collectively talk about how we remove people who work in districts this way,” Ruiz said.

Former Education Commissioner David Hespe, now a lawyer with Porzio Bromberg & Newman, suggested that the state should amend its teacher tenure law to include more detailed information about misconduct cases. He said it currently has strong criteria regarding performance issues.

“I think arbitrators are more likely to get those cases right than in misconduct cases, where often arbitrators apply standards more applicable to private world or government world, not schools,” Hespe said. “The behavior in schools and what we expect in schools I think is different.”

A new state law takes effect Friday – the so-called “pass the trash” law – requiring school districts, charter schools, private schools and contracted service providers to review the employment history to job applicants to check for allegations of child abuse or sexual misconduct.

Rush Russell, the executive director of Prevent Child Abuse New Jersey, urged lawmakers to watch the state Department of Education closely to ensure it properly implements the law.

“There’s too many ways to water that down, to delay the implementation, to put in requirements, to add language that, “Oh, it has to be substantiated’ – language that’s not in the bill,” Russell said, “that could undermine what the bill is intended to do.”

Acting Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet said the state is preparing a public awareness campaign regarding the new forms for prospective employers to use when hiring people for jobs that require regular contact with children.

“These plans and the forms are in the final stages of review and will be available soon for our districts to use,” Repollet said.

Repollet said that in the 2016-17 school year, there were three teacher certifications revoked and two suspended for child endangerment and 28 revoked for sexual misconduct.

So far this school year, there have been four teacher certifications revoked and four suspended for child endangerment and 16 revoked for sexual misconduct, Repollet said.

“There is no place for impropriety or inappropriate conduct in our schools,” Repollet said. “Our teachers and administrators must always be held to a greater standard of behavior.”

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