‘I’m a victim’ — NJ district can’t fire disgraced teachers union president
UNION CITY — She was forced to resign as a teachers union president after unwittingly starring in an undercover Project Veritas video last year, but she's won back her $89,000 teaching job.
Kathleen Valencia was caught on video calling her students “dirt bags,” describing their homes as “s---holes,” saying that a teacher should keep mum about having assaulted a student, and boasting about a child-molesting teacher avoiding prison.
The video, released in May, was one of two that the conservative activist group released targeting New Jersey Education Association affiliates. The videos resulted in the resignations of Valencia and the local president in Hamilton (Mercer). The videos spurred legislative hearings and proposed laws.
District officials suspended Valencia and then tried to fire the tenured social studies teacher, arguing that she brought shame and disruption to the city’s schools. But the effort to oust her was blocked in November by an arbitrator, who called a termination “too harsh a penalty.”
The 55-page decision by arbitrator Susan Wood Osborn, who heard testimony in October from nine witnesses, reveals how much turmoil and chaos the Project Veritas video and Valencia’s words caused the district, particularly her reference to an unnamed teacher accused of having sex with a student.
The video was a set-up by an undercover operative who posed as a sister of a teacher. The woman claims that her brother (not a real person) pushed an unruly student and that he feared losing his job.
In an effort to allay the woman’s fears, Valencia holds up a file she said contained information about a teacher who had sex with a student.
"You know what this whole file is about? It's about whether or not they get to keep their pension," Valencia says. "Is he going to jail? No. How come? Because the child’s not pressing charges. There’s no proof.”
Valencia was actually referring to Dennis J. Palatini, who two months earlier had pleaded guilty to fourth-degree criminal sexual contact with a 16-year-old at-risk student who accused him of asking her for nude photos and then engaging in a sexual act in front of her in a parking garage.
But parents who saw the video — as well as school officials and authorities — worried that Valencia might be referring to another educator.
As a result of the video, the district superintendent heard from the Union City police chief, the Hudson County assistant prosecutor in charge of special investigations and the state Attorney General’s Office.
A grand jury was empaneled and subpoenaed district records regarding Valenica. And the State Board of Examiners, the body that regulates teaching certifications, inquired about Valencia’s job status.
The arbitration decision also reveals that Valencia had been assigned as the home instruction teacher for Palatini’s victim and that after the video was released, the girl’s mother met with the superintendent because she was worried that her daughter’s identity would be released.
Valencia resigned as president on May 3. The district suspended her with pay on May 4 and filed tenure charges against her on June 7. At its June 27 meeting, the district Board of Education suspended Valencia without pay effective Sept. 1.
“Her alleged actions and statements were so disruptive and detrimental to the school district so as to require Valencia’s employment with the Board be terminated,” schools Superintendent Silvia Abbato said in the tenure charges.
The district filed seven charges of conduct unbecoming:
- She encouraged cover-up of an alleged assault on student
- She encouraged a teacher to not report an alleged assault and recommended that a teacher lie about the incident.
- She promoted an illegal, unethical and unprofessional action by encouraging a teacher to give a student a passing grade to get him out of his class.
- She called students “sc--bags”
- She called homes of student “s---holes”
- She called students “dirt bags”
- She made false and misleading statements about a teacher accused of having sex with a student.
Valencia argued that the charges violated her rights to free speech and due process and that she was a “victim” of Project Veritas' “right-wing” agenda.
Valencia said that her comments were made in an effort to make the woman feel better because the woman claimed that her brother was suicidal and in fear for his life.
Valencia added that she would not have given a teacher the same advice nor would she have advised any teacher to change grades.
She said the edited video left out the positive things she said about students and the district and that she did not intend for her comments to be made public.
The arbitrator agreed with Valenica that the video lacked context and that she did not actually encourage any real teacher to violate policy. The arbitrator said there was no evidence that the imaginary student was failing.
The arbitrator added that Valencia was right that the teacher accused of molesting a student was not going to jail because he ended up getting three years of probation.
The arbitrator, however, sided with the district regarding Valencia’s foul language.
"It defies logic that Valencia would have made these comments about students that she claims she loves and adores,” Osborn says.
Still, Osborn said it was not Valencia’s intention to cause chaos and she was not responsible for publishing or editing the video. She also had an unblemished 15-year record.
“I believe that she is very unlikely to repeat the conduct shown on the video again,” Osborn says.
Osborn ordered that Valencia be reinstated this month with no back pay as well as no raise for the school year.
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-359-5348 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.