Tenure Charges for Three Edison Teachers After Off-Color Online Chat

EDISON, NJ–After spending an hour in closed-to-public, executive session, the township's nine Board of Education members approved tenure charges against three elementary school special education teachers on December 15.

Tyler Van Pelt, Maryellen Lechelt, and Maria Weber are now suspended without pay after the decision, a response to an off-color online conversation they held using a software program during a district workshop in November 2014.

A fourth teacher who participated in the chat, Jonathan Bauza, resigned. 

The others were suspended with pay for allegedly taking part in a self-described "wise-ass backchanneld discussion" during a technology training workshop held on October 23 at the district's main office.

They will no longer recieve pay now that the tenure charges are certified.  A state arbitrator will now decide whether the teachers get reduced salaries or lose their jobs.

The chat included sexual jokes about at least two women including one facilitating the session, and the school district's Superintendent.  The teachers also used foul language and mocked special education students.

“She looks like a poor man’s denise richards,” wrote Van Pelt at 8:55am, referring to the workshop’s facilitator, setting the tone for the discussion.

“Poor man’s anything is good as its gonna get in edison,” responded Lechelt.

"I can appreciate any man that looks like a turtle having any ability to get any woman," wrote Lechault later on, apparently referring to O'Malley.

But perhaps the most damaging comments were those that used insensitive language to refer to special education students.

"They take the tart cart home," Lechelt wrote, though it's not clear exactly who "they" refers to.  Special education students often ride on smaller buses, derisively referred to by that term.

"Short bus kids," replied Van Pelt, who is also the author of a blog that is often critical of O'Malley and the school district leadership.

In a January 2 , 2014 post, "Kids Lose Out in O'Malley's One Man Technology Show," he writes: "Under O’Malley, the distribution of tax-payer dollars for technology has been remarkably secretive and uneven."

"Appeals for technology, made by teachers directly to O’Malley, are welcome by O’Malley and now, apparently, largely circumvent school administrators and supervisors, Assistant Superintendents, and district technology personnel."

While the board meeting was not very well-attended by the public, reporters from several media outlets including NBC New York, were on hand at the Woodrow Wilson Middle School located in North Edison. 

The board found that there was probable cause "to credit the evidence in support of the Sworn Tenure Charges, and that the Sworn Tenure Charges are sufficient, if true, to warrant the dismissal and/or reduction of salary of Board employees," said Board of Education President Veena Iyer.

Andrea Siragusa, a resident of South Edison, whose son is now in 7th grade and has been a special education student since the age of 3 1/2, showed up at the meeting to share his anger with the public and spoke during the open session.

Siragusa acknowledged that his son has “received many great services” while going to school in the district.  "But I’m disturbed when I have to read an article that three special education teachers made degrading remarks about our kids."

"I wonder what they teach to children in a classroom about acceptance, about tolerance, and about how to behave when a child is slipping. If these teachers have that kind of mentality… what are they teaching the other children in the classroom when the child acts up, when the child throws up, when the child has a fit?” he said.

Siragusa said it was "not teacher-like" that the conversation included numerous uses of curse words.

“They should be finding another job. If they were civil and they were people who had a heart they would resign, because they don’t belong in the classes. They don’t belong with our students.”

He asked how a parent could trust the teachers to provide an appropriate education or teach the children about bullying.

“There is no worst bullying than what they did. How can we let them back in our classroom in Edison, or anywhere in the state?”

He asked the board to consider “many factors when you decide what to do about their future because they don’t belong in Edison – they don’t belong anywhere to teach.”

While everyone waited for the board to finish its closed session, Siragusa told NBToday that he usually does not come to a lot of board meetings, saying that it’s best not to do that in Edison.

“But something like this, I’m going to come out, it’s just not right,” Siragusa said.

The October 23 chat was facilitated through a computer program called "Today's Meet." Some of the teachers told reporters they did not think that others could see their chat, but anyone on a district computer could have.

Another teacher allegedly reported the discussion, sparking an investigation into the chat.

The transcript of the chat was obtained and made public by NJ.com through an open public records request.

Edison Township Public Schools has confirmed that the user “tvp” is Tyler Van Pelt, “mamalechelt” is Maryellen Lechelt, and ‘trish” is Maria Weber.

“We have spent 5 minutes idling which works out to 300,787 hours of time wasted per year,” types Lechelt, adding: “which township has paid close to 300,000 dollars in salary for us to do- yay us.”

In the chatroom, Lechelt later addresses Van Pelt, “lets start a todays meet when we get back to school and are supposed to teach.”

A bit later in the chat, Lechelt shares a thought: "I’ll take the time to teach myself how to use this during my instructional time."

Dave is an award-winning business reporter who has authored over 200 articles for New Brunswick Today.