NJ principal rape case kept secret by court and school district
HILLSBOROUGH — A woman claims she was raped by a township school principal when she was a special-needs student in the sixth grade.
But as her lawsuit against the retired educator and the school district heads toward a possible trial, the public will be left in the dark.
Judges have granted a broad privacy order that was requested by attorneys for both the woman and the school district defendants.
The former principal has not been charged with a crime but this is at least the second lawsuit by a former student claiming he sexually abused them as a child. His attorney has denied the allegations.
The request to prevent the public from gleaning any details, including the dates of proceedings, was made by the woman’s attorney five days after New Jersey 101.5 in July first revealed the existence of the litigation
The attorney for the district – which has been accused of turning a blind eye to the abuse and blamed for hiring a school principal who, it was later alleged, had repeatedly raped a boy while working a previous teaching job in another school district — supported the request for secrecy.
The district’s attorney, Robert Gold, used the order to deny New Jersey 101.5 access to documents that could shed more light about the allegations and what the district did once they learned about them.
In a Jan. 22 decision, Superior Court Judge Yolanda Ciccone denied a request by open-government advocates John Paff and Donald and Paula Baldwin to reopen at least part of the case to the public, saying that the plaintiff’s “fears and concerns” about avoiding “additional psychological injury, embarrassment, humiliation and unnecessary stigmata” are “justified.”
The open-government advocates had argued that the privacy concerns were overblown because the woman filed the lawsuit under the pseudonym “Jane Doe” and the media had made no effort to identify her by her real name.
As a matter of policy, New Jersey 101.5 does not usually name victims of sexual abuse or any child victims, and avoids identifying them indirectly, unless the victims or their parents have requested to be identified.
The advocates said that the privacy order, which was signed in September by Superior Court Judge Thomas Miller, was “too broad” because it prevents the public from tracking the progress of the case.
“It is reminiscent of the ‘memory holes’ referred to in George Orwell’s famous novel ‘1984,’” the advocates said in a court filing. “The public and media have legitimate interest in being able to reliably search the court’s docket to determine who is being sued and why.”
“The media and public also have a legitimate need to know what documents are being filed and when court proceedings are scheduled. If a stipulation of dismissal is filed, the media and pubic need to know that so they can check to see if a settlement agreement has been signed.”
Ciccone noted that court documents that name sexual assault victims are normally not considered public records and that the law does not prevent a judge from imposing further restrictions on documents from such cases.
An 'imperfect human'
New Jersey 101.5 obtained a copy of the lawsuit shortly after it was filed in July in Superior Court of Somerville.
In the complaint, Jane Doe says that then-Woodfern Elementary School principal Matthew Hoffman raped and molested her in his office during the 2006 school year. The abuse happened repeatedly during the one year she was at the school, the lawsuit says.
Gold told New Jersey 101.5 that township police investigated the matter after the woman’s father brought it to the district’s attention nearly four years ago, long after she was no longer a student. Hoffman was not charged with a crime.
Township police declined to release a copy of the police report to New Jersey 101.5 because no criminal charges had been filed. The district denied an Open Public Records Act request for their copy of the police report, which the attorney said was dated January 2013.
In the fall, Hoffman’s attorney, James Wronko, said his client “denies all the allegations.”
“In fact, he emphatically denies that he did anything improper to the person who is the subject matter of that civil lawsuit,” he said.
The district appears to have learned about Jane Doe’s accusation while Hoffman and the Hopewell Valley school district were being sued by a man who claimed that Hoffman sexually abused him in the 1980s.
Hoffman retired from Hillsborough in the middle of the school year in 2009, when he was 52 years old and principal of Auten Road Elementary School. The retirement came a few months after the former Hopewell Valley student filed his lawsuit in Mercer County.
In 2015, a jury found only Hoffman at fault and awarded the victim $300,000 in damages.
The Hopewell Valley plaintiff also filed his lawsuit under a pseudonym. Details of that case became public after the plaintiff appealed and an appellate decision was released in April turning down his request for a new trial against the district.
John Doe said that only in adulthood did he finally come to terms with the fact that he had been molested after he and his wife sought therapy for marital strife. It is not clear if officials at Hopewell Valley ever knew of allegations of misconduct against Hoffman, but John Doe's lawsuit argued that the district missed "red flags" about his behavior.
Hoffman was hired as a principal by Hillsborough in 1996. Officials here awarded him tenure in 1999 despite opposition by some parents who did not believe Hoffman had the right temperament for the job.
After New Jersey 101.5's article in July, one of those parents provided a reporter with a letter from then-superintendent Robert Gulick scolding parents for circulating a survey that requested feedback about Hoffman before the board's vote on his tenure.
"This process is particularly unsettling to me since it is my very strong point of view that Mr. Hoffman has been a very fine principal," Gulick said in the letter dated June 28, 1999, which was after Hoffman had earned job-protecting tenure.
“Each of us, no matter what our status in life, can grow and improve. Matt Hoffman is an imperfect human being striving on a day-to-day basis to become a better educational leader. You can assist in this process by bringing to Matt in a constructive fashion your ideas on how he can better serve your children."
The attorney who represented the John Doe in the Hopewell Valley case, Robert Varady, also is representing Jane Doe in the Hillsborough case. Varady did not respond to requests seeking comment.
c. 1979 — Hoffman begins his career as an educator in New Jersey public schools, according to pension records.
1980s — Hoffman works as a math teacher in the Hopewell Valley school district.
July 1996 — Hoffman is hired as a principal of the Woodfern Elementary School in Hillsborough, a district that’s a 20 minute drive from Hopewell Valley district.
June 1999 — The Hillsborough school superintendent and Board of Education award tenure to Hoffman despite opposition by a small group of parents who are displeased with Hoffman’s manner and interaction with parents, students and staff.
2009 — A former student of the Hopewell Valley district, now an adult, sues both the district and Hoffman claiming he experienced marital problems as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from sexual abuse by Hoffman that began in 1982, when the student was in Hoffman's sixth-grade math class. He says the abuse continued until 1986, when he was in the 11th grade.
December 2009 — Months after the lawsuit is filed in Mercer County, Hoffman announces an early retirement from Hillsborough, where he has been serving as principal of Auten Road Elementary School. He collects a $57,000 annual pension.
January 2013 — The date of a Hillsborough police report that police filed after district officials notified authorities about a former student’s claim that Hoffman raped and molested her in his office in 2006. Prosecutors never charged Hoffman with a crime. Police and school officials refuse requests by New Jersey 101.5 in 2017 to release a copy of the report.
2015 — A jury awards the former Hopewell Valley student a judgment of $300,000, finding Hoffman at fault for the consequences of the alleged abuse. The jury finds that the school district does not share responsibility.
June 2017 — The student who notified Hillsborough about being abused in 2006 by Hoffman files a lawsuit in Superior Court in Somerville against Hoffman, the Hillsborough school district and former school officials. The lawsuit is filed under the pseudonym “Jane Doe.”
July 2017 — New Jersey 101.5 publicly reveals for the first time the existence of the Hillsborough lawsuit, spurring the school district to review hiring and background check policies at the request of concerned parents. The news report also results in a Superior Court judge making any details of the pending lawsuit closed to the public at the request of both the alleged victim’s attorney and the school district’s attorney.
January 2018 — Superior Court Judge Yolanda Ciccone, citing the alleged victim’s need for privacy, denies a request by three open-government advocates to reopen at least part of the case to the public.
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.