BOE Hears Concerns About F.N. Brown Lawsuit

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The civil lawsuit filed by a Verona parent against the Verona Board Of Education, Superintendent Diane DiGiuseppe, F.N. Brown Elementary School Principal Anthony Lanzo and teacher Maria Graziano was not on the agenda for last night’s BOE meeting. But it was almost the sole focus of the public comment portion of the meeting, with the Board hearing from both supporters of the lawsuit and supporters of the school.

As MyVeronaNJ.com reported on May 2, the suit alleges that the parent’s child was subject to sexual assault at least 20 times by a fellow F.N. Brown student between October 2021 and January 2023, and that the district turned a blind eye to it. But the district did file reports about an alleged assault with the investigative arm of New Jersey’s Department of Children and Families, which could have referred the case to law enforcement for charges. There have been no referrals to the Verona Police Department or Essex County prosecutors.

At Tuesday’s meeting, several of the commenters said they represented the views of 50 parents who support the lawsuit. They demanded that the BOE put a school resource officer and hall monitors at F.N. Brown, disclose the location and angle of video cameras in the school and put parents on the school safety team. Other speakers, several of whom said they are educators or educational professionals, expressed concerns that the allegations in the suit were being embraced as facts before being proven and that a young child was being characterized as a molester. The commenters, who were given up to three minutes each for their remarks, spoke for more than 30 minutes.

Ben Jaffe, an F.N. Brown parent, implored the BOE to help the community heal from the divisions over the suit. “There is one thing that I really am going to ask and that is do not settle this case,” he said. “This community needs to heal. All the facts need to come out and I hope that everyone on all sides of this can agree. Don’t settle this case. I’m really hoping that there’s not going to be a letter that says nobody admits to anything. The facts need to come out for this community to heal. And if they don’t, it’s going to be very, very hard for it to heal.”

Under the Board’s comment policy, it waits until all members of the public have spoken before responding and only the superintendent, board attorney or board president can respond on behalf of the board. The BOE, like the Town Council, does not speak in public session about litigation it might be facing.

Superintendent DiGiuseppe did respond to many of the demands that were made. She noted that parents already serve on the school safety team at F.N. Brown, as well as those at other schools. She said that Verona teachers receive annual training in reporting sexual abuse and other kinds of abuse. They also receive annual training in reporting HIB (harassment, intimidation and bullying) and, every five years they receive training in suicide prevention. “There’s a laundry list of things that we’re required to train on each year and Dr. Miller (Verona’s director of curriculum instruction and assessment) maintains the record of who receives that training and who doesn’t,” she added. Any reports that are made must be kept confidential, she said.

DiGiuseppe then turned to the question of school resource officers, who are sworn law-enforcement officers with arrest powers who work in a school. She said Verona had explored this in the past and found the cost to be substantial, “somewhere around $600,000 or more,” which she said would be very close to the total amount that the state allows Verona to increase its school budget every year. She said that, while funding for a school resource officer could be put to voters in the form of a ballot question, if voters say No, Verona could not use district funding to ever fund school resource officers.

With regard to hallway monitors, DiGiuseppe noted that there are monitors at Verona High School and H.B. Whitehorne Middle School, which are staffed with teachers that have off periods. But the elementary schools have different scheduling and wouldn’t have teachers available.

In response to the demand for additional cameras in schools, DiGiuseppe said that an expansion of the camera network was begun before the litigation against F.N. Brown was filed. Verona has added 40 cameras across schools this year and has 20 more that are waiting to be installed. Verona is also upgrading its servers so that it can store more video. New Jersey requires that video be stored for 31 days.

DiGiuseppe sharply rebuffed the demand that parents be able to view the angle of the cameras. “That is an absolute non-starter,” she said. “As a school safety specialist, we are trained that no one should know the angle that our cameras are pointing. That’s a huge security breach. Parents giving that information out in the community could lead to a devastating event in our schools.”

You can watch the public comment portion of the meeting and Superintendent DiGiuseppe’s responses in the video below, which begins at the start of the public comments.

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