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  • Avi Wolfman-Arent

N.J. lawmakers question teachers union on undercover videos

The N.J. state Senate held a hearing to investigate hidden-camera videos that appear to show local leaders of a the teachers union talking about protecting teachers accused of abusing students. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

New Jersey lawmakers grilled teachers union officials Thursday, weeks after the release of undercover videos that appeared to show local union representatives bragging about their ability to preserve the jobs of teachers who abuse students or drugs.

At a joint hearing held by the state Senate committees on education and labor, lawmakers questioned whether there’s a coverup culture in teachers unions that encourages members to conceal or downplay misconduct.

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

Ruiz was paraphrasing David Perry, the since-removed head of the teachers union in Hamilton Township, Mercer County, who made a similar statement in front of hidden cameras deployed by the conservative muckraking group Project Veritas.

Project Veritas released tapes of Perry and Kathleen Valencia, the now-former head of the teachers union in Union City. Both were approached by women who falsely claimed to be relatives of district teachers involved in physical altercations with students.

The tapes appear to show Valencia touting her ability to preserve the job of a teacher who had sex with a student. She also refers to students with behavioral problems as “dirtbags,” and she suggests the fabricated student victim wouldn’t be believed without video evidence.

On a different set of videos, Perry says he was able to protect the job of teacher who was caught using drugs five times. He also instructs the woman to tell the made-up teacher not to tell anyone about the alleged incident.

“He needs to not tell a soul about this,” Perry says on camera. “Nobody.”

New Jersey teachers are required to report cases of suspected abuse to state authorities.

Edward Richardson, executive director of the New Jersey Education Association, said Thursday he knows of no cases in which a union representative suppressed abuse allegations.

In most cases, he testified, allegations go first to state authorities, who then inform union officials that an investigation is pending.

“The scenario depicted in the videos is atypical,” said Richardson. But “assuming that was is said in the videos is accurate, no, that is not an appropriate way to address a situation like that.”

Richardson and the NJEA, however, have cast doubt on the veracity of the videos that came out in early May, and they questioned the intentions of the group that released them.

“They came with explicit purpose of using dishonesty to harm our members and our union,” he said Thursday.

Project Veritas has a long history of using undercover actors with fake stories to entrap people working in organizations typically associated with liberal politics. Past targets include Planned Parenthood, the community group ACORN, and National Public Radio.

The ACORN videos prompted funding cuts to the group that eventually shut down. More recently, a failed attempt to bait the Washington Post with a fake story about former Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore led to Post reporters exposing the plot.

Project Veritas also took an earlier swipe at the NJEA in 2010 by going undercover at a union conference.

The NJEA and others have criticized the outlet, helmed by conservative activist James O’Keefe, for selectively editing video clips to accentuate or falsely imply wrongdoing. During Thursday’s testimony, Richardson said NJEA had the videos “professionally analyzed” and that there are “no less than 26 edits in them.”

But lawmakers seemed to balk at the suggestion that the union reps in the videos had been set up, or that NJEA could hide behind the motives of Project Veritas.

“I cannot accept that,” said Ruiz. “A person is not set up to say things like: ‘This file right here, this huge file, is from a teacher that had sex with a student. You’re not going to jail.’

“No one can set you up to say something like that,” Ruiz added. “No one.”

Reactions from lawmakers, districts, and the mainstream press seem to indicate establishment figures are taking seriously this most recent batch of Project Veritas footage.

Both teachers caught on the videos have resigned their positions as union reps and have been placed on leave.

NJEA also said it has hired an outside law firm to conduct an internal probe.

“Some of the words that were used you can’t ignore,” said Richardson.

This isn’t the first time this year New Jersey has grappled with the intersection of teacher abuse and job protections.

Already in 2018 state legislators passed a bill that requires districts to share information about teachers accused of sexual misconduct and child abuse. It also prohibits districts from signing severance agreements that withhold information about past investigations into teacher behavior.

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