BERNARDS — The township school district can't fire a language teacher who was arrested after leading cops on a brief chase with a marijuana pipe in her purse.

An arbitrator last week ruled in favor of Brenda Bruni, a Hillsborough resident who was pulled over in Raritan Township last March for speeding, saying that while Bruni showed bad judgement, the behavior did not warrant "the ultimate penalty" because her actions "did not touch any students or other members of the school community."

The arbitrator turned down the district's request to fire her, instead issuing a two-month unpaid suspension.

Bruni will not have a criminal conviction on her record because a Superior Court judge allowed her into a pre-trial intervention program and dismissed the drug paraphernalia charge.

Police say Bruni sped off during the traffic stop because she needed to go home to check on her mother-in-law who suffers from Parkinson's disease and dementia. The woman also told police that she had left meatballs cooking in the oven.

She asked the officer if he would follow her to the house so she could check on the woman, but that request was denied. Before backup could arrive, Bruni left the scene without permission, police said.

A brief pursuit ensued with Bruni going more than 50 mph, above the speed limit, before one of the officers blocked her off near her home about three minutes later.

After Bruni was taken into custody one of the officers reported smelling marijuana and finding a "one-hitter" pipe in her possession. Bruni told police she knew the pipe had been in her pocket but denied smoking in the car. She also told police she had found the pipe in her husband's truck a week or two before the traffic stop and put it in her purse.

Bruni was charged with third-degree eluding and possession of drug paraphernalia as well as several motor vehicle offenses. After getting Bruni to stop the officers got out of their cars and drew their guns, ordering her to get out of the car and kneel on the ground with her hands up.

Following her arrest, the Bernards Township School District started proceedings to fire Bruni on the grounds of conduct unbecoming a teaching staff member and actions that would have an adverse effect on students and the school community.

In testimony before the arbitrator, district superintendent Nick Markarian said there had been no issues with Bruni in her professional work during her 15 years in the district. Bruni had also received several commendations and positive evaluations. A letter from a student was also submitted on Bruni's behalf calling her an "excellent teacher" who "changed my attitude toward learning tremendously."

Less than a week after the incident, Bruni wrote a letter to Markarian and the district expressing remorse for her conduct.

"Out of fear for the safety of my mother-in-law, I made a grave mistake and decided to drive the short distance home instead of waiting for the officers to complete the traffic stop," she said. "I can't take that decision back, but please know that it was done out of concern and I never imagined it would escalate to the point it did."

Bruni said she made a "mistake" and asked the district to "consider the entire picture. I made this irrational decision based on the safety of my mother-in-law."

The arbitrator stressed that the district did not prove that the teacher was "knowingly" in possession of drug paraphernalia or that the arrest had an "adverse effect upon pupils or the school community."

"Of course she was not justified in taking off, especially when she had asked and was denied permission to do so," the arbitrator said in the decision. "However, she was not otherwise uncooperative and did not resist arrest once she stopped her vehicle at her home."

"The conduct was a single instance of poor judgment – motivated by concern for an ailing family member – that will not result in any criminal conviction. The teacher is a long-term employee with a stellar record of positive interaction with her students and her peers and no history of discipline of any kind. Given all of those circumstances, termination is simply too harsh a penalty."

Because the teacher already had been on paid leave, the arbitrator suggested that she reimburse the district for two months.

An email and phone call to Markarian seeking comment were not returned.

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