On October 21, 2021, the Lebanon Borough School District (Hunterdon County) confidentially paid $235,000 to a former administrative assistant who said she was fired after she reported the superintendent’s alleged failure to act on a student’s repeated suicide threats.

In her August 11, 2019 lawsuit, Leah Driscoll, who was hired by the school district in March 2008, claimed that in December 2018 her eldest daughter, who attended the district’s elementary school, reported that a fifth-grade student had told her and other students that “she didn’t want to live anymore.” According to the complaint, the student who expressed the suicidal intent was black and lived with her aunt because her mother still resided in Africa.

Driscoll said that she advised her daughter to report the comment to her teacher and, according to the complaint, the teacher relayed the comment to Superintendent Bruce Arcurio who in turn reported it to the school social worker. After these communications took place, Driscoll said that she felt confident that the student would receive proper suicide prevention counselling.

In March 2019, Driscoll encountered the student at the school. The girl, who was “visibly distraught and sobbing” allegedly told her “I don’t want to live anymore.” From speaking with her, Driscoll claimed that she learned that the girl had not yet been contacted by the social worker regarding her December 2018 comment.

Driscoll claimed that she was “appalled” by the social worker’s alleged inaction and believed that it was in violation of the law and put the student in danger. She said that she felt the lack of attention given to the girl may have been racially discriminatory because “a white male student had also made comments expressing suicidal intentions” but that the school district “had promptly initiated a full suicide intervention.”

Driscoll said hat she immediately told Superintended Arcurio about the female student’s second comment and stated her belief that the disparate treatment given the white student was racially discriminatory. Arcurio told Driscoll that she “had done the right thing” and that “he would take care of it,” according to the lawsuit. Driscoll claimed, however, that she learned from other staff members that the social worker, despite being aware of the girl’s suicidal comments, said that she wouldn’t take action because she “didn’t want to stir the pot.”

Later that month, Driscoll said that she had a personal visit with a school board member while her daughter was at the board member’s home. During that visit, Driscoll said she expressed her concerns to the school board member. The member, in turn, called Arcurio and expressed her concern that no action had been taken in response to the girl’s two comments.

Driscoll claimed that when she returned to work, Arcurio “addressed her brusquely and refused to look at her” and shortly thereafter sent her “a retaliatory negative performance review, finding fault with her on entirely bogus ground.” He also reportedly “reprimanded [her] for her whistle-blowing conduct in reporting [the girl’s] suicidal comments, as well as [the district’s] failure to address the issue.” According to the lawsuit, Arcurio told Driscoll “you have been observed becoming too involved in staff issues, conversations, and student discussions, with a tendency to insert yourself into situations that should be addressed by the nurse, social worker, or Superintendent.”

Arcurio also allegedly told Driscoll that a “Board Member called me to inquire about a student who made statements about wanting to die . . . The Board Member indicated said that it was reported to me and the school social worker; however, nothing was done . . . It is not appropriate for you to contact a Board Member regarding a student’s mental health.”

Despite the reprimand, Arcurio allegedly assured Driscoll that her job was not in jeopardy. However, Arcurio allegedly recommended that Driscoll be terminated at the end of the 2018-2019 school year. The lawsuit claimed that the school board resolved in May 2, 2019 to terminate her “for reasons of economy.” When Driscoll told Arcurio that she was contemplating legal action, Arcurio allegedly “seized upon this comment as justification for suspending her through the end of the school year, denying her the right to enter the school premises or even attend school/class events with her children.”

At or about May 2, 2019, she said that the same female student again stated, for the third time, that she did not want to live. Driscoll claimed that she then spoke with the girl’s aunt who told her that nobody from the school district had ever notified her about her niece’s comments.

Driscoll claimed that even after her termination, the district continued to harass her by targeting her children. Specifically, Driscoll alleged that she was never informed that her child experienced a choking incident in the cafeteria and that the school nurse refused to medically attend to her children after they had “suffered serious playground injuries, including head trauma and a sprained ankle.”

As part of the settlement agreement, Driscoll promised to never seek future employment from the school district citing “irreconcilable differences.” The agreement also resolved a separate administrative action that Driscoll filed with the New Jersey Department of Education/Office of Administrative Law bearing Docket No. EDU 14373-2019S.

The case is captioned Leah Driscoll v. Lebanon Borough School District, Docket No. HNT-L-333-19 and the Driscoll’s attorney was David Zatuchni of Lambertville. The civil lawsuit and settlement agreement are on-line here.

The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, under which the Driscoll agreed that the settlement and its terms and amounts be kept “completely confidential.” 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 lawsuit’s allegations have been proven or disproven in court. Settlement agreements typically state that payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by any of the employees or officials named in the lawsuit. Driscoll’s allegations against Arcurio, the social worker and other officials and employees are just that–allegations. All that is known for sure is that the Lebanon Borough School District or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Driscoll $235,000 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.

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