This story has been updated with a copy of the letter sent from the superintendent of schools to the Jefferson School community in April and an additional letter from the district sent to Jefferson families on June 19.
Kenneth Palmer, a 21-year-old former paraprofessional at Jefferson School in Maplewood, has been charged with masturbating in front of students at the school and taking an “upskirt” video of a student.
According to a South Orange-Maplewood School District spokesperson, Palmer worked in the district from February 2017 until September 2017. The district was notified of his arrest on December 5, 2017, but “law enforcement explicitly directed us not to discuss this matter during the investigation.” When the investigation was closed and Palmer was charged in April, the district sent a letter to the Jefferson community (see below).
The district sent an additional letter on Tuesday, June 19, that reads as follows:
Dear Jefferson Community,
The release of further details from a police report about allegations of criminal misconduct by a former paraprofessional at Jefferson has understandably prompted questions and concerns. The nature of the charges is among the most difficult that schools, parents and children would ever have to discuss together.
Some details which have been reported in the press were not provided to Administration by law enforcement, which conducted the investigations along with DCPP. The videos were in possession of law enforcement and were never shared with District staff, so the District is in no position to comment on the content. As Dr. Ficarra wrote in April, law enforcement and related State Agencies contacted directly any parent, child or staff member with whom they needed to speak about the allegations.
We would like to reiterate that District administrators have been specifically directed by the Prosecutor’s Office to not discuss the case until after the paraprofessional in question was charged, and then to only discuss limited information. We understand that the confidentiality required by the legal process can be frustrating.
We have prepared some talking points [see below] for discussing this with your children, if you decide that this is appropriate for your family.
South Orange Maplewood School District
Paraprofessionals in the school district are hired through a vendor, Essex Regional Educational Services Commission. Paraprofessionals were outsourced eight years ago in order to help close a multi-million dollar budget gap. Village Green has reached out to an ERESC representative for comment.
In his letter from April, Interim Superintendent of Schools Dr. Thomas Ficarra wrote, “It should also be noted that, as required by State Law, the paraprofessional was cleared to work by the NJ Department of Education Criminal History Review Unit prior to being assigned to work at Jefferson.”
NJ.com reports that, after Palmer was arrested on September 28, 2017, for masturbating in front of children at a ShopRite in Succasunna, NJ, video and photos from the school were found on his phone.
According to the police warrants, the phone contained videos and photos of Palmer masturbating in front of students as he walked through school hallways. One video showed Palmer masturbating while “outside a bathroom door as two students, an 8-year-old and a 9-year-old, walked out of the bathroom past him” and another “showed Palmer masturbating and approaching a different 9-year-old student as he/she was facing a water fountain.”
The police report also states that Palmer secretly took “upskirt” photos of the “undergarment-clad genital area of another 9-year-old student, taken from under the student’s desk.”
Palmer was scheduled for a court hearing in Essex County on June 18 but the hearing has been postponed until July 23. He is being held at Morris County Correctional Facility since his arrest.
Mike Donoghue of the SOMSD Special Education Parents Advisory Committee (SEPAC) posted online that he felt that “the district had far more control over quality” when paraprofessionals were direct employees of the district. “Since the temp agencies were engaged, quality has gone down, and horror stories like this one have appeared. There have been numerous allegations of neglect, incompetence and abuse, and a documented case of a para stealing lunch money from a disabled student.”
Donoghue wrote, “The Special Education Parent Support Groups have advocated to start bringing paraprofessionals beck to employees status, and they could use your support.”
Donoghue gave permission for his post to be quoted in this article.
This story will be updated.
Letter from Superintendent Dr. Thomas Ficarra to the Jefferson community, sent in April 2018:
Dear Jefferson Families and Staff,
On December 5, 2017, the district was informed that a paraprofessional who had worked at Jefferson School from February 2017 until September 2017 was arrested in another county, and was the subject of an ongoing criminal investigation.
It should be noted that law enforcement explicitly directed us not to discuss this matter during the investigation. Since criminal charges were filed against the paraprofessional in Essex County last week, we are now permitted to provide you with limited information. However, we have been directed not to release any specific details or the names of specific individuals relevant to the case.
Any parent, child or staff member whom law enforcement and related State Agencies felt they needed to speak to has already been contacted.
It should also be noted that, as required by State Law, the paraprofessional was cleared to work by the NJ Department of Education Criminal History Review Unit prior to being assigned to work at Jefferson. We understand that the confidentiality required by the legal process can be frustrating, and appreciate your patience and support.
Dr. Thomas Ficarra