NJ officials spend decade debating how to punish teacher who used N-word
Twelve years ago, Egg Harbor Township elementary teacher Lauren Cooke referred to a fellow black teacher as an “Aunt Jemima.” Later that school year, she angrily called the same teacher an anti-black slur in front of staff and students.
That was enough for the school district that had employed Cooke since 1993 to suspend and fire her. But what some people might find to be a slam-dunk case of misconduct actually turned out to be decade-long legal battle involving multiple judges, the state education commissioner, the attorney general and the teachers’ pension board.
On Tuesday, a two-judge panel of the Superior Court Appellate Division handed down the latest ruling against Cooke, denying her appeal of the pension board’s 2019 decision to reduce her pension payments by 10%.
The school district initially suspended Cooke without pay for 120 days and brought tenure charges against her for making the racially derogatory comments and lying to an administrator who had investigated her conduct.
Cooke fought the tenure charges. An administrative law judge in 2010 agreed with administrators that Cooke’s conduct was "unbecoming" but the judge not believe that Cooke deserved to be fired. Instead, the judge tacked on an additional 30 days of unpaid suspension.
The acting commissioner of education at the time modified the judge’s ruling by making Cooke pay for her own racial sensitivity training. Both Cooke and the school district appealed the commissioner’s decision and Cooke filed a discrimination lawsuit against the district. The lawsuit was settled in 2012 with the district withdrawing their appeal of the tenure decision and Cooke resigning from her job.
A year later, Cooke applied for a disability pension. But in 2014, the Board of Trustees of the Teachers Pension and Annuity Fund learned about the past tenure charges against Cooke. The public pension systems have the authority to revoke or reduce retirees’ pensions if they have been accused of misconduct or convicted of crimes. The pension board decided to reduce Cooke’s $31,500 annual pension by more than $3,100 a year.
Cooke appealed the pension board’s decision and an administrative law judge sided with her. The judge downplayed the racial slurs as “isolated events that occurred in private conversations.” The judge concluded that using the slurs did not make her unfit as a teacher and that the “misconduct did not constitute a breach of the condition that public service be honorable.”
The state Attorney General’s Office objected to the judge’s findings. The pension board, which is not bound by the administration law judge’s decision, upheld their penalty, pointing out that multiple uses of racial slurs does not constitute “isolated” incidents but a pattern of conduct.
Cooke, once again, appealed. But she did not find sympathy with Superior Court judges, who backed the pension board’s decision. The appellate judges disagreed with Cooke that the pension reduction was unreasonable or unfair.
“On the contrary,” the judges said, “the Board limited the forfeiture so that it was not excessive, even if hypothetically a more severe sanction might have been imposed.”
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.