An arbitrator ruled last month that Joseph DeShan can remain in the classroom, igniting a debate between parents determined to oust him and those who defend the longtime teacher.
By Corina Knoll
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It began last fall, when students new to Cinnaminson Middle School in New Jersey brought home rumors of a “rapist” at the school.
Eventually, their alarmed parents discovered that a teacher, Joseph DeShan, had a past life as a Roman Catholic priest in Bridgeport, Conn.: In the late ’80s, when then-Father DeShan was about 30 years old, he began a sexual relationship with a girl half his age, with whom he had a child.
This information was not a secret. The teacher’s past had first surfaced in 2002, when he was briefly removed from the classroom but was allowed to return by the superintendent at the time. The small community of 16,000 seemed to accept his past.
But residents now find themselves divided over what has become an emotionally charged debate in the southern New Jersey town, prompting hostile exchanges on Facebook, at sporting events and during school functions.
The controversy is flaring just as Catholic dioceses around the country are releasing lists of priests credibly accused of sexual abuse or misconduct, including Mr. DeShan, who was quietly named by the Diocese of Bridgeport. The diocese listed him among clergy who had been credibly accused of sexual abuse of minors and had settlements paid on their behalf.
The renewed tension reached a head last month when a state arbitrator decided that Mr. DeShan could not be fired, overruling efforts by the school board to end his tenure.
One parent, who asked not to be named for fear of being ostracized, said: “You can’t be friends with so-and-so, or you can’t go over to their house, that kind of stuff. People are well aware of who does not agree with the decision, and who does.”
Parents new to the information are insisting Mr. DeShan should have been fired long ago.
“It has continually been brushed under the rug for so many years,” said Asha Quinn, whose daughter is in sixth grade at the middle school.
Ms. Quinn said she felt it was her duty to notify other parents. “There was a handful that said it was a long time ago and he hadn’t done anything else since,” she said. “The question becomes: How many times does somebody have to molest a child before they aren’t allowed to teach anymore?”
Mr. DeShan’s supporters, who say he is a compassionate reading teacher, speak with the same conviction, but argue that he made a mistake when he was younger and that he should be left alone. Both sides say their stance is in the majority.
In December, the Cinnaminson Board of Education filed tenure charges against Mr. DeShan with the New Jersey Commissioner of Education, demanding that he be removed for prior and present conduct that had caused “substantial disruption.”
The board cited complaints that students described Mr. DeShan as “creepy” and a “rapist,” and that parents had asked that their children be excused from his class. There was also an alleged incident in which Mr. DeShan told a young female student, “Let me see your pretty green eyes. You don’t see them too much anymore,” according to a document released by the state.
Walt De Treux, the state arbitrator in the tenure case, dismissed the “pretty green eyes” comment, ruling that the allegation was based on hearsay. He also said in his decision that Mr. DeShan’s past behavior had already been investigated, and that the board had no grounds to “revisit conduct of which it has been long aware.”
Mr. De Treux ordered that Mr. DeShan, who had been absent from the school for about six months, be immediately reinstated with full back pay and benefits.
Mr. DeShan arrived at the Cinnaminson school district in 1996, six years after the teenage girl gave birth to their child. But it wasn’t until 2002 that his past surfaced in a series of Hartford Courant articles.
He was put on leave, but returned after three weeks when the superintendent at the time, Dr. Salvatore J. Illuzi, said that he and two lawyers for the district had determined no administrative rules had been violated.
In Connecticut, sex with an underage girl is considered statutory rapebut the state’s statute of limitations on sexual assault had also passed.
Dr. Illuzi retired in 2017 and was replaced by Stephen Cappello, who said the district was disappointed with the April arbitration ruling and was working with a lawyer to determine its next steps.
Mr. DeShan did not immediately reply to requests for comment.
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