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NJ Civil Settlements

South Jersey charter school paid out $27,500 to settle former principal’s retaliation lawsuit.

On February 19, 2020, the Bridgeton Public Charter School (Cumberland County) quietly agreed to pay $27,500 to a former school principal who claimed that she was harassed out of her position for reporting a teacher’s alleged physical abuse of a student to state authorities and for classifying too many students as needing special education. Under the terms of the settlement, the teacher must refund the Charter School $15,000 of the $27,500 if she discloses the terms of the settlement to anyone.

In her lawsuit, Jashanna Jones-Booker, a former Principal at the Charter School, claimed that she reported Kimberly Ross, a third grade teacher, to the New Jersey Department of Children and Families (NJDCF) for allegedly pinching a student’s arm hard enough to cause a bruise. According to the lawsuit, despite nine students having claimed to have seen Ross pinch several students, she was only suspended for three days and moved to a second-grade classroom. The NJDCF concluded that there was no evidence of child abuse by Ross, according to the complaint.

Note: In its answer to the complaint, the school did not directly admit or deny that Ross was accused of abuse. Rather, the school said that it did not have sufficient knowledge to respond to the allegations of abuse and “left [Jones-Booker] to her proofs.” It is also important for readers to note that Ross, who was never named as a defendant in the lawsuit, had no opportunity to contest the allegations Jones-Booker made against her. Thus, readers should take the allegations against Ross as being just that–allegations that were never proven.

Jones-Booker claimed that Dr. Ann Garcia, the school’s executive director, began harassing her after she complained to NJDCF. Garcia allegedly told her that she should have handled the matter internally to avoid any bad press. Jones-Booker alleged that Garcia “demand[ed] that [she] not comply with the mandatory reporting laws in reporting child abuse.”

In 2018, a second-grader was sent to Jones-Booker’s office after Ross reported that the student was “acting out.” Jones-Booker said that she noticed “multiple bruises, scratches and various abrasions” on the student’s arm and suspected that Ross might have abused the student. According to Jones-Booker, her interview of the student convinced her that Ross was responsible for the injuries.

According to the lawsuit, Jones-Booker reported the matter to Garcia in order to comply with her demand that such incidents be handled internally. She said that she later reported the incident to NJDCF after “it quickly became clear that Dr. Garcia had no intention of reporting the abuse to NJDCF.”

On May 4, 2018, Jones-Booker met with Dr. Garcia, Kim Garcia and Lisa Zuniga in Dr. Garcia’s office. During the meeting, Dr. Garcia allegedly “began screaming at Dr. Jones-Booker” for reporting the matter to NJDCF and claimed that her report had “jumped the gun.”

Jones-Booker claimed that the harassment that Dr. Garcia inflicted upon her caused her to have an anxiety attack and suffer depression. When she reported her anxiety and depression to Garcia as a “diagnoses and disability,” Garcia reportedly responded that she “didn’t want to hear it.”

Garcia allegedly told Jones-Booker that she was “not a good fit” for the school because of her anxiety and depression and because of her reports to NJDCF. Jones-Booker claimed that Garcia did not allow her to return to work until she completed and passed a psychological evaluation. Jones-Booker claimed that the evaluation resulted in a diagnosis of an anxiety attack and a finding that she “was of no harm to herself or anyone.”

She claimed that Garcia continued to block her attempts to return to work and refused to grant her “reasonable accommodation due to her disabilities.” She said that shortly thereafter, her contract was non-renewed by the school’s board of trustees. Jones-Booker claimed that when she appealed the non-renewal, the appeal hearing was scheduled for a date when she was on medically-ordered bed rest.

Jones-Booker claimed that she was denied entry to the school when she came to retrieve her belongings.

Jones-Booker also claimed that in late 2017, Dr. Garcia instructed her “to stop classifying so many special education students in the school” because these classifications were “costing the school money.”

As for Ross, the school’s response to an Open Public Records Act (OPRA) request disclosed that she was a teacher with the school for one year, that she earned $55,000 per year and that she separated employment from the school on June 30, 2018 because her contract with the school was not renewed.

The case is captioned Jones-Booker v. Bridgeton Public Charter School, Docket No. CAM-L-1210-19 and Jones-Booker’s attorney was Toni L. Telles of Voorhees. Case documents are on-line here.

The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, which prevents the parties to the suit from disclosing the settlement’s terms to others, including the media. Fortunately, however, these confidentiality clauses do not trump the public’s right to obtain copies of settlement agreements that arise out of lawsuits in which a government agency or official is a defendant.

None of the lawsuit’s allegations have been proven or disproven in court. Settlement agreements typically state that payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by Ross, Garcia or any of the defendants. All that is known for sure is that the charter school or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Jones-Booker $27,500 than take the matter to trial. Perhaps the defendants’ decision 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 resolve before trial–it is impossible to know the truth of what really happened.

By John Paff

Chairman of the New Jersey Libertarian Party's Open Government Advocacy Project