Sweeney aghast at teacher union videos, Murphy wants more info
Senate President Stephen Sweeney said a joint hearing of the Senate education and labor committees will be held soon, looking into hidden-camera videos in which local teachers’ union officials describe how they would protect teachers accused of wrongdoing.
“When we find problems, we fix problems. And unfortunately that was an eye-opening experience watching those videos of people bragging about the behavior that was taking place,” said Sweeney, D-Gloucester.
“Obviously, someone has found a way to game the system, so we have to understand the system to correct it so they can’t game it,” Sweeney said.
The videos were taped and produced by Project Veritas. The presidents of the New Jersey Education Association local unions in Hamilton Township in Mercer County and Union City in Hudson County were suspended by their respective districts after the videos were released last week.
Asked about Sweeney setting up the hearing, Gov. Phil Murphy said “I don’t blame him.” But he did allude to the tactics of Veritas’ leader, James O’Keefe.
“On the one hand, this guy’s very famous for selective editing. So I’d like to see the whole tape,” Murphy said. “On the other hand, if it’s true, it’s completely unforgivable and unacceptable, what was said on that.”
“As a general matter, should we look at anything that endangers kids? Absolutely, 1,000 percent. That’s an easy one,” he said. “The particulars of this, I actually have not seen the film. I’ve read what was said in it. Pretty unacceptable. But again, this guy’s a notorious selective editor, and so I’d like to see the tape unedited. But it’s pretty unappetizing and unacceptable stuff.”
Sweeney said there’s no getting around what the union officials said on the tapes.
“People can attack the videos, but the videos are real,” Sweeney said. “And now we need to address the issue.”
The NJEA said the videos deserve special scrutiny because of Veritas’ history, but last week it announced it will review local affiliate practices and undertake appropriate training to ensure all school employees understand the responsibility to report any suspected abuse of children.
“NJEA welcomes the opportunity to discuss these important issues further with legislators in order to ensure that all public education advocates are working together to ensure the safety and wellbeing of New Jersey’s students,” the union said Monday in a statement.
Sweeney said the NJEA’s internal review isn’t sufficient.
“Well that’s kind of the fox watching the henhouse,” Sweeney said. “You need someone else to come in and figure out what’s wrong, and then correct it.”
“When you heard the things that we heard – sex with a student and the family didn’t come forward. Was there intimidation for the family not to go forward? And how many more cases are there like that?” he said. “You need to know the rules to bend the rules. How many cases? So internally within the schools, obviously there’s a way of making these things look so no one sees them.”
Last year, according to the state Election Law Enforcement Commission, the NJEA spent around $5 million though its Garden State Forward political organization in an effort to defeat Sweeney. Allies of Sweeney spent more, and Sweeney won his sixth term by his largest margin yet.
But Sweeney said the hearings have “nothing to do with politics at all” and likened the issue to a law enacted last month requiring schools and their contractors to review employment history of prospective employees to check for allegations of child abuse or sexual misconduct.
“If they want to try to make it about me, I’m the Senate president. I have a responsibility to deal with these things,” Sweeney said. “There’s zero politics with this.”
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Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5 and the editor of New Jersey: Decoded. Follow @NJDecoded on Twitter and Facebook. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org