On August 28, 2023, the Lacey Township Board of Education (Ocean County, NJ) discreetly agreed to pay $300,000 to settle a lawsuit filed by a teacher who said that she was fired after she was falsely accused of handling a special needs student with “excessive force.” She claimed her firing was “outrageous and unjustified” and that even the student’s own mother was “incensed” by her firing.
In her lawsuit, Bridget Moser, who was hired by the Lacey Township Board of Education in 2016 and most recently taught disabled preschoolers at the Mill Pond Elementary School, said that she received excellent reviews and was “routinely praised by school officials and parents for her caring and nurturing personality.” She was on track to receive tenure on September 1, 2020.
Moser, who said that she had a history of miscarriages, became pregnant in January 2020. It was during this time that she had “an especially challenging student” referred to as “TD” in one of her classes who was “known to choke, bite, hit, kick, elope, and engage in screaming fits in the classroom.” The presence of this student made it especially important for Moser’s classroom to staffed with at least two paraprofessionals at all times, a requirement that the school often failed to meet, according to the lawsuit. She said that the school district “routinely ignored” her requests for the required staffing, which made it difficult to do her job.
Moser claimed that despite TD’s challenges, she was able to form a strong bond with him and frequently reported his progress to the boy’s mother.
In February, 2020, Moser said she told Principal Holly Niemiec of her pregnancy and her concerns that the stress of handling TD and the rest of her students while her classroom was understaffed made it “more and more difficult to put on a strong face” and that she was concerned that she could lose her baby.
Moser said that the week of February 24, 2020 was especially difficult because TD was acting out every day and that the classroom was down a paraprofessional for three consecutive days. On February 25, 2020, TD became agitated and refused to let other students work on a puzzle. Moser said that she “made a decision to pick him up and remove him from the center to avoid an escalation of the situation” and to prevent student injury. Moser said that she “gently” picked up TD and “carried him with her right arm around his chest and under his left armpit with her other arm around his thigh so as to prevent him from kicking her in the stomach, as she was nine weeks pregnant at the time.”
Her act of carrying TD was caught on one of the school’s surveillance cameras which came to the attention of Superintendent Vanessa P. Clark. On March 3, 2020, Moser said that she was escorted to an office where she was aggressively interrogated by Clark and Assistant Superintendent Stephen J. Decker about the February 25th incident with TD. She was handed a letter that placed her on administrative leave pending an investigation to be conducted by the Lacey Township Police Department’s Institutional Abuse Unit (IAU), according to the complaint.
On March 6, Moser said that her union representative informed her that the IAU would not be moving forward with the investigation and that TD’s parents, when notified of the incident, expressed no concerns. Still, Moser said that she attempted several times to reach out to Clark “to make [her] aware of her pregnancies and miscarriages so as to provide additional context to the incident.” Since Clark never responded, Moser said that she reached out to Board of Education President Linda Downing on March 18, 2020, the day that the Board was supposed to discuss the status of Moser’s employment.
About an hour prior to the March 18 Board meeting, Moser said that Clark called her and said that “her termination from employment was being recommended to the Board, but that she would be given an opportunity to submit a resignation letter prior to the issue of her termination being presented to the Board at the meeting that evening at 6:00 p.m.” She said that when she tried to explain the context of of the incident, “Clark responded callously: ‘Well then maybe you shouldn’t have picked him up at all.'”
Moser said that the call from Clark caught her off guard and caused her to panic. At 3:42 p.m., she said she sent Clark her letter of resignation “fearing that she would never be able to work again as a teacher if she had a record of having been terminated based on allegations that she had inappropriately handled a child.” She said that the following day, she received a call from Clark notifying her that “the Board had rejected her resignation and voted instead to terminate her from employment.” Her lawsuit noted that Board member Edward Scanlon voted against her termination.
Moser said that the day after the meeting, “TD’s mother posted on the school message board how her son misses Mrs. Moser and the routine in her class.” When she spoke with TD’s mother on March 20, Moser said that the mother “became incensed upon learning that Moser had been terminated and did not understand why the District would take such action.” According to Moser, TD’s mother said that her son was handled gently and was not harmed. Five days later, TD’s mother gave Moser a letter of recommendation, according to the lawsuit.
Moser said that she was devastated by her termination as it “effectively branded her a child abuser,” which she stated was false, given her history as a caring and nurturing teacher. She said that the actions of Clark and Decker were “malicious, willful, and in bad faith” and posited that school officials discriminated against her due to her pregnancy. She also claimed that after she filed her lawsuit, the Board retaliated against her by denying her father the position of Long-Term Substitute Science/Special Education. Moser claimed that her father was the sole applicant and was eminently qualified for the position.
According to the settlement agreement, Moser received $100,000 and her lawyer received $200,000. The agreement also provided that the Board would accept Moser’s resignation retroactively to March 18, 2020.
The case is captioned Bridget Moser v. Lacey Township Board of Education, Docket No. OCN-L-2014-20 and Moser was represented by Christopher P. Kelly of Basking Ridge. The civil lawsuit and settlement agreement are in a combined PDF file on-line here.
The settlement agreement contains a confidentiality clause under which Moser 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 Moser’s allegations have been proven or disproven in court. Settlements typically state that payment does not constitute an admission of wrongdoing by the Lacey Township Board of Education, Clark, Decker or any other school officials. All that is known for sure is that the Lacey Township school district or its insurer, for whatever reason, decided that it would rather pay Moser $300,000 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.