On September 7, 2023, the Dunellen Board of Education (Middlesex County, NJ) signed off on a confidential settlement agreement that resolved a female employee’s claim that she was retaliated against for backing up another female teacher’s sexual harassment claim and for refusing to disobey state laws regarding distance learning.
In her lawsuit, Monika Vakulchik, who was hired by the Dunellen Board of Education (DBOE) in 2016 as a Speech and Language Pathologist at Faber Elementary School, said that she consistently performed well, receiving positive evaluation scores each year and having her contract renewed annually.
In November 2019, Vakulchik said that she became aware of a male teacher at DBOE sexually harassing a female colleague. She claimed to have observed his inappropriate conduct, “made an audio recording of the male teacher belittling and yelling at his students” and confronted him. In response, the male teacher reportedly told her that he “‘blacked out’ and lost control and did not recall saying certain disparaging things.”
After her female colleague filed a sexual harassment complaint against the male teacher, Vakulchik said that she informed DBOE and her supervisor, Director of Special Services Amanda Lamoglia, that she had information about the male teacher’s behavior and was willing to assist in the investigation. However, her involvement in the case and her support for the harassment victim led, according to Vakulchik, to a hostile work environment and retaliation from DBOE and Lamoglia.
During the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, as New Jersey considered remote learning, Vakulchik said that she set up Fluency Group Google Meet sessions for her students and contacted parents about the potential for these sessions while lawmakers in Trenton were attempting to clarify the parameters of distance learning. At that time, there were laws in place banning teletherapy for speech-language services, occupational therapy, counseling and home instruction.
Despite these laws, Lamoglia allegedly directed Vakulchik to proceed with teletherapy before formal authorization was given, which Vakulchik said she objected to, fearing it could jeopardize her license. Vakulchik said that she held off complying with Lamoglia’s directive until the New Jersey Department of Education issued an emergency rule waiver on April 1, 2020.
In May 2020, Vakulchik received her annual Summative Evaluation from Lamoglia, scoring 3.33. However, she said that Lamoglia criticized her for supporting the sexual harassment complaint and for initially objecting to unauthorized teletherapy. Based solely on these criticisms, Lamoglia recommended not renewing Vakulchik’s contract, claiming her performance was inconsistent with the Department of Education’s standards, which Vakulchik contests as pretextual, according to the lawsuit. Ultimately, the DBOE Superintendent adopted Lamoglia’s rationale for non-renewal, according to the lawsuit.
Vakulchik claimed that her non-renewal arose out of discriminatory and retaliatory motives related to her involvement in the sexual harassment case and her adherence to New Jersey Department of Education policies. Despite her consistently high performance, she claimed that DBOE and Lamoglia refused to renew her contract, citing reasons that Vakulchik argued were unjustified and retaliatory.
According to an October 21, 2021 MyCentralJersey article, “Dunellen staffer gets her job back after state rules school board didn’t follow rules,” by Mike Deak, the Commissioner of Education reinstated Vakulchik’s contract.
According to the DBOE’s responses to Open Public Records Act requests, Vakulchik is presently employed at an annual salary of $83,000 and Lamoglia appears to have left her $144,000 per year position on June 30, 2022, although the records the DBOE provided are subject to interpretation.
The case is captioned Monika Vakulchik v. Dunellen Board, Docket No. MID-L-6351-20 and Vakulchik was represented by David H. Kaplan of Stanhope. The civil lawsuit and settlement order are in a combined PDF file on-line here.
The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause, under which Vakulchik agreed that the settlement and its terms and amounts be kept confidential. Fortunately, however, 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 former student’s allegations have been proven or disproven in court. Settlements typically state that payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by the Dunellen Board of Education, Lamoglia or any other school officials. All that is known for sure is that the Dunellen school district or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Vakulchik $195,000 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.