By KATHY CHANG
WOODBRIDGE — The Woodbridge Township Board of Education had just cause to dismiss Michele Schwab, a longtime fourth-grade teacher at Robert Mascenik Elementary School No. 26, stemming from her involvement with two separate shoplifting offenses, according to an arbitration decision on tenure charges the board filed against her.
Schwab, who had worked as a fourth-grade teacher in the Woodbridge Township School District since September 2001, was seeking dismissal of the tenure charges from the New Jersey Department of Education Bureau of Controversies and Disputes and her reinstatement with all lawful back pay.
In a 27-page decision made public on Jan. 5, Arbitrator James W. Mastriani stated Schwab’s arrest and acknowledgment of her conduct, even without a criminal conviction, is sufficient basis to find a violation of her job description that requires a teacher to “behave in accordance with the law and exhibit high standards of professional ethical behavior.”
On Feb. 7, 2015, Schwab allegedly went to the Sears Department store at the Woodbridge Center Mall and shoplifted $229.98 worth of items.
Schwab was subsequently arrested and charged with shoplifting. The complaint was eventually dismissed in May 2015 when the Sears apprehending agent, no longer employed by Sears, did not appear in court to testify against her.
During the arbitration hearing, Schwab acknowledged that she shoplifted the items.
Schwab failed to inform Schools Superintendent Robert Zega of her arrest, which violated district policy in telling school officials of an arrest in a timely fashion.
The board became aware of Schwab’s initial arrest on March 3, 2015 when Zega received a letter from Schwab’s counsel at the time letting him know of the arrest. Schwab was suspended with pay pending an investigation.
In May 2015, Zega decided to lift the suspension and return Schwab to school after he learned that the criminal charges against Schwab were dismissed.
“We were hoping that this was a one-time incident, and we wanted to be compassionate to Ms. Schwab and return her to the classroom,” Zega testified at the hearing.
An incident similar to the initial incident at the Sears occurred on March 5, 2016 at the Song of the Sea, a store in Beach Haven on Long Beach Island.
While in the store, Schwab picked up a $60 item, placed it in her purse and left the store without paying for the item.
The store owner, later discovering the item was missing, viewed surveillance footage, which showed an unknown woman, later identified as Schwab, placing the item in her purse.
In efforts to identify the unknown woman, the owner first posted a picture of the woman on Facebook and shortly after posted the surveillance video footage of the incident on public pages on Facebook.
The post was viewed and reflected 47,000 “hits,” including at least one of Schwab’s fourth-grade students.
Robert Mascenik School Principal Judith Martino was informed by a teacher of the post, and she personally viewed it.
Schwab was subsequently identified from the pictures and video and was arrested by the Beach Haven Police Department.
She pleaded guilty to the shoplifting charge and entered the conditional dismissal program, which included barring her from the store and being placed on probation for one year.
Martino testified that because of the public nature of the Song of the Sea incident, students at Robert Mascenik were upset.
She testified to receiving eight calls from parents expressing concern over the incident and that the entire two fourth-grade classes became aware of the video.
Martino assigned the school’s guidance counselor to provide lessons to each fourth-grade class regarding positive behavior to assist them in distinguishing between rumor and fact.
Schwab, during the arbitration hearing, asserted that mental health issues and the effects of her changing medications were contributing and influencing factors in her conduct at Sears and Song of the Sea.
She noted that her condition did not affect the quality of her job performance and when she would return to the classroom she would continue to perform in a highly effective manner.
Mastriani, in his decision, said Schwab’s arrest prompted events that caused the district to cover her class for the remainder of the semester and to counsel all of the fourth-grade students who became aware of her arrest due mainly to the publicity surrounding the store’s posting of the surveillance tape on social media.
“The extent to which the video was observed cannot be determined, but the record clearly supports the conclusion that it was either seen or its contents described by faculty, parents and students who became aware that a district teacher had committed an unlawful act of dishonesty,” the decision states.
Mastriani said the proven conduct of Schwab was serious.
“It reflected two instances of dishonesty by a fourth-grade public teacher,” he said. “The public visual evidence of her second act committed on March 5, 2016 depicted a clear image of her breach of trust as a public school elementary teacher.”
Mastriani in his decision further stated that “this repeated act of dishonesty within a 13-month period allowed the district to exercise its discretion to remove [Schwab] from her tenured position.”