Teacher loses pay for ‘inappropriate conversation’ with students

By KATHY CHANG
Staff Writer

OLD BRIDGE — A tenured teacher at Old Bridge High School lost 120 days of pay for having an inappropriate conversation with female students in his photography class last school year, according to a 12-page decision on the tenure charges brought by the school district against him.

In April, Thomas Strassle, an industrial arts teacher at the high school since 2003, had been placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of a criminal and administrative investigation into conduct unbecoming a teacher in reference to student contact. Subsequently, four tenure charges were filed against Strassle.

The tenure charges involved allegations that Strassle “gave money to a female student over a period of time, that he then requested sexual favors in exchange for the money and that he engaged in inappropriate sexual contact with that student,” according to the decision papers.

The charges also included allegations regarding an inappropriate conversation in the photography darkroom of the high school with several female students in his class about prostitution.

Melissa Biren served as the arbitrator at the three hearings that were held in July and August.

The allegations against Strassle arose from a complaint made in September 2015 from a female student, who was in Strassle’s photography class during the 2014-15 school year.

The school district presented four witnesses, including a student in Strassle’s photography class, who was not the student who filed the complaint; a detective with the Old Bridge Police Department, who took the statement from the female student, who filed the complaint; Sally Fazio, vice principal at Old Bridge High School; and Schools Superintendent David Cittadino.

“The underlying factual allegations in the tenure charges are based entirely on [the female student, who filed the complaint],” Biren wrote in her decision last month.

Biren wrote that without the female student’s testimony at the hearing, she could not be cross-examined to test the veracity of her claims.

The female student provided a sworn statement to police on Sept. 28, 2015, denying any sexual contact with Strassle. On Sept. 30, 2015, the female student alleged that she engaged in a sexual act with Strassle.

“I did not have any opportunity to assess her credibility,” Biren wrote in her decision.

In addition, Biren said there was no other competent, reliable evidence presented at the hearing that corroborated the female student’s claims that were at the core of the tenure charges.

She noted that the Old Bridge Police Department, the Institutional Abuse Section of the Department of Children and Families and the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office separately investigated the female student’s claims.

The agencies did not file any criminal or other charges against Strassle apart from the tenure charges that were filed by the school district.

Biren decided to dismiss the charges involving the complaint by the female student.

However, she decided that the allegations regarding the conversation with several female students about prostitution did warrant a penalty.

Strassle did not testify at the hearing.

Two students testified that they did not feel uncomfortable with Strassle even after the conversation in the darkroom.

One of the students testified that the conversation with Strassle was “not serious” and was “a joking conversation.”

“Nonetheless, inserting himself in a conversation with female high school students about becoming prostitutes or strippers and asking whether they would do anything for money, even if intended as a joke, was improper for a teacher,” Biren wrote.

“As a tenured teacher, Strassle should have known that joining a conversation with female students about the students’ willingness to engage in prostitution or stripping was inappropriate without a specific rule expressly addressing such conduct.”

Biren said from the evidence and testimony, she is not persuaded that the actions proven in the case render Strassle unfit to continue to teach.

“The evidence does not demonstrate that returning Strassle to his position would cause any harm or otherwise have an ‘injurious effect’ on the maintenance of discipline and the proper administration of the school system,” she said.

Biren further wrote in her decision that the proven charge involves an isolated instance of an inappropriate conversation with female students.

“There is no evidence of any pattern of inappropriate conduct,” she said.

Biren reduced the penalty from termination to forfeiture of the 120 days of pay that was already withheld from Strassle following the certification of the tenure charges.

Contact Kathy Chang at kchang@gmnews.com.