On October 23, 2009, the Camden Board of Education (Camden County) agreed to pay $75,000 to a former fifth-grade teacher who claimed that the Board retaliated against him after after he brought public attention to a vice principal allegedly making Hispanic students eat their lunch off the cafeteria’s floor.

In his suit, Jose L. Rivera of Vineland said in February 2008, one of the students in his bi-lingual class, consisting exclusively of Hispanic students, spilled some water on the floor while trying to change a jug of water on a water cooler. This incident allegedly happened on day when Rivera was absent and a substitute was teaching the class.

He alleges that as a result of this accident, Vice Principal Theresa Brown “decided to punish the whole class [by making the Hispanic children] eat lunch on the floor of the cafeteria without trays, while the African-American and mixed classes sat at the lunch table with trays. This went on for more than a week before [Rivera] learned of the punishment.”

Rivera reported that his students told him that Vice Principal Brown had threatened them with more punishment if they told anyone about having to eat off the floor. Rivera, who said he feared retaliation, advised his students to tell their parents of the punishment and have the parents call the Board of Education. In his suit, Rivera said that he didn’t report the matter to Acting Principal Alex DeFlavia because he felt that he would “be either indifferent to or in support of” the punishment.

After the Board received parents’ complaints, Rivera said that the Board reprimanded and suspended him “for failing to notify the principal, even though the principal already knew and had taken no action.” He said that he “never worked another day” for the Board, but that Vice Principal Brown was not fired but transferred to another school.

The case is captioned Rivera v. Camden Board of Education, Federal Case No. 1:08-cv-04306 and Rivera’s attorney was Alan H. Schorr of Cherry Hill. Case documents are on-line here.

None of Rivera’s allegations have been proven or disproven in court. The settlement agreement resolution expressly states that the $75,000 payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Camden or any of its officials. All that is known for sure is that Camden or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Rivera $75,000 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants’ decision to settle was done to save further legal expense and the costs of trying what were in fact exaggerated or meritless claims. Or, perhaps the claims were true and the defendants wanted to avoid being embarrassed at trial. This is the problem when cases settle before trial–it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.

Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project. Please send all comments to [email protected]