L.B. schools facing $30M lawsuit for negligence

Legal action alleges abuse by custodians of Gregory School students

Staff Writer

Attorneys representing three Long Branch students and their families have filed a $30 million lawsuit claiming the students suffered assault, battery and emotional distress as a result of an alleged 2012 incident in the bathroom of the Gregory Elementary School.

The suit, filed in federal court in Trenton on Feb. 28, names the Long Branch Public Schools and Board of Education, the Gregory School, and former district employees Kevin Garifine and Robert Rego, two custodians who allegedly bound and gagged the students, as defendants.

The custodians were never charged, and a spokesman for the Monmouth County Prosecutor’s Office said last week that the office concluded after an investigation that no criminal act had taken place.

The complaint, filed by the law firm of Tacopina, Seigel & Turano, New York, charges civil rights violations and claims the three male students have suffered “pain caused by being bound and restrained by tape, severe emotional distress evidenced by post-traumatic stress disorder, heightened anxiety and fear, lack of sleep and inability to sleep normally, and decreased self-esteem and depression.”

“The $30 million is spread over three plaintiffs, so it is $10 million each,” Matt DeOreo, an attorney with the high-profile firm, said in a March 8 interview.

“It is such a high number because it is such an early stage of their psychological [development], and it’s unclear what is going to happen going forward.

“Right now there are issues of post-traumatic stress, and they are afraid to go to school,” he added. “How do you put an adequate number on that?”

According to DeOreo the three students are still enrolled in the district. A fourth student involved in the alleged incident is not among the plaintiffs.

Long Branch Superintendent of Schools Michael Salvatore said in a statement that the administration and Board of Education could not comment on pending litigation. Richard McOmber, attorney representing the school district, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

The seven-count complaint includes two claims of civil rights violations and a claim of battery, assault, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and negligent infliction of emotional distress.

The three students, who were 7 years old at the time of the alleged incident on March 1, 2012, are referred to by the pseudonyms JEF Jr., MED and VO in the 26- page complaint. The six family members who are also plaintiffs are similarly identified.

According to the complaint, the two custodians forcibly tied the hands of four children with tape as a “game” at approximately 9:30 a.m. in an unlocked bathroom at the Gregory School. The complaint also states that the custodians gagged two of the students’ mouths shut with tape, and pushed the four students against the wall.

“The custodians acted in such a manner to satisfy their malicious and sadistic desires in taking pleasure from inflicting pain and emotional abuse upon these children. Such conduct was extreme and outrageous,” the complaint states.

It also alleges that the custodians took photographs of the bound and gagged students with their cell phones in the unlocked bathroom.

“To date, upon information and belief, these incredibly offensive pictures have never been recovered by law enforcement,” the complaint states.

“These children were and are severely emotionally traumatized by the fact that such offensive and inappropriate pictures of them exist and have not been destroyed or turned over to the proper authorities. For all they know, such pictures may have been posted on the Internet and/or emailed to multiple third parties.”

According to the complaint, the students also suffered physical harm during the incident.

“The custodians then forcibly and violently pushed all four students against the wall and proceeded to take pictures of them with the cameras on their cell phones. Such abusive conduct was not consensual in any manner, and was an incredibly offensive touching and battery.”

After the students were released from the bathroom, the complaint states, they returned to their homerooms and immediately reported to their teachers.

“Both teachers simply ignored the children’s statements,” the complaint alleges. “Moreover, neither teacher reported the incident to any school or law enforcement officials.”

“A short while later, JEF Jr. and MED reported the abuse to [another] teacher, [who] delayed informing school authorities and failed to notify law enforcement,” the complaint states. According to the complaint, school Principal Elford Rawls-Dill called one of the parents and explained the incident at 1 p.m. that day. The complaint states that he was asked to alert the police, but “rejected this request by saying the police would not be called because the school was ‘doing its own investigation.’”

However, the complaint states that Rawls did contact the police later that day.

Comments made following the incident have led to additional distress, according to the complaint.

“Superintendent Salvatore has sought to downplay the significance of this abuse by making statements to the media that this incident was merely a ‘joke gone bad.’ Such statements only have increased the severe emotional trauma of these students, because it has created an atmosphere in their community that these students and their parents are creating a proverbial ‘mountain out of a molehill.’”

While much of the complaint focuses on the alleged actions of the custodians, it also claims the school district was negligent.

“The municipal defendants and their employees failed to comply with state law, and the policies and regulations … concerning an ‘abused child.’ The municipal defendants also failed to train their employees to adequately comply with such laws, policies and regulations.”

The complaint charges that the incident also violates the state and federal constitutions.

“The right to be free of [state-sanctioned] damage to a person’s bodily integrity is protected by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution, and provisions of the Constitution of the state of New Jersey.”

When news of the incident became public, outraged parents voiced concerns during a PTA meeting on March 6.

Salvatore said during the meeting that the custodians were immediately suspended, and additional staff was placed at bathrooms in all district schools