BY MARY JO LAYTON , COLLEEN DISKIN
Statewide, nearly a dozen teachers or coaches have made headlines since the beginning of December, accused of everything from videotaping boys showering in a school locker room to having sex with teens they were chaperoning on a field trip.
The roster of cases includes a math teacher from Hasbrouck Heights who was sentenced to probation after exchanging 11,000 sexually explicit emails with a teenage girl at his high school and a Hackensack soccer trainer who went to prison after sexually assaulting an 11-year-old student. In Teaneck, a basketball coach admitted to authorities he collected naked photos of his players.
The cases come amid the sex scandals at Penn State, Syracuse University’s basketball program and the Amateur Athletic Union. It is happening years after similar scandals rocked the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts of America, setting off a national public discussion about trusted leaders accused of disturbing acts against children.
State crime statistics don’t track how many coaches or teachers have been accused of sexual crimes against children, but one measure indicates it’s happening more frequently: The number of teachers and administrators stripped of their licenses for sex-related offenses against children increased to 33 last year, up from 18 five years earlier, according to the state.
“I believe there are more teachers crossing the line then there were 10 years ago,” said Chief Assistant Passaic County Prosecutor Joseph Del Russo, a veteran of the special-victims unit that investigates sex crimes against children.
To be sure, most of these crimes are perpetrated by the child’s relative, and the number of teachers and coaches accused is a tiny fraction of the people in those fields. But the cases among teachers and coaches have triggered concerns: Are background checks protecting children; is the role of social media increasing inappropriate contact; are the boundaries between student and teacher less defined now; are pedophiles or predators more likely to seek professions that place them in contact with children?
Preventing these crimes will require more than background checks. As the most recent arrests reveal, the defendants in New Jersey have no previous incidents and would not have raised red flags. By all accounts, they were respected teachers and popular coaches who didn’t raise suspicions.
“Being a great guy, being well-liked and giving back to the community is not mutually exclusive of having a sexual relationship with a child,” Del Russo said.
In the latest arrest, Scott Rubinetti, the head coach of the Lyndhurst High School football team, was charged Wednesday with sexual assault of a student. Rubinetti allegedly had a sexual relationship with a high school senior — and urged the girl to lie if questioned by police, Molinelli said when he announced the arrest.
Rubinetti was hailed as a hero last season for steering his team to their first playoff win in nearly 30 years.
Del Russo and other prosecutors say a significant amount of manipulation now begins with a text or email exchange, leaving any child with a cellphone or Facebook account vulnerable.
Years ago, a teacher might have “lusted from afar” for a particular teen in a history class, Del Russo said, but never acted because there was no means of contact beyond a crowded classroom.
But technology is blurring social boundaries among students and their friends — and with their teachers — in many ways. Students are trading explicit photos and racy texts among themselves as they never have before. Meanwhile, having grown up with the Internet and texting, it may not seem unusual to them to receive emails from teachers.
“In the digital age, there’s a lot more opportunity for communication and more opportunity for abuse,” said Del Russo, who just won a major victory in a case that started with an email.
Clifton resident Francisco Lindo, a math teacher and wrestling coach at a Union City school, was sentenced in December to five years in prison after pleading guilty to sexual assault. He had sex repeatedly with a female student in his home, Del Russo said. It all started with an email.
In another case, a coach and substance abuse counselor at Wayne Valley High School met his victim when she came to him to talk about her personal problems.
Jonathan J. Titmas, a girls’ softball coach, pursued the girl for weeks with text messages until she finally agreed to meet him, prosecutors said. Titmas pleaded guilty in March to charges involving the sexual relationship, served 45 days in jail and is on three years’ probation.
“There’s just no reason for a teacher to be repeatedly texting with a student,” Molinelli said.
Parents must be sure their children understand the proper boundaries for interacting with their coaches, teachers and mentors, law enforcement officials said. What can start as a nice message, such as “I like your dress,” can morph into something more sinister over time.
“In many of the cases, you don’t really see it happening until you’re deep in it and then it’s too late,” said Daniel Watter, a Morristown psychologist.
Authorities said this is the kind of situation that happened at Becton Regional High School, where a teacher was accused of exchanging more than 11,000 sexually explicit pictures and text messages with a 16-year-old student.
Gianfranco Maucione pleaded guilty to official misconduct. At his sentencing in June, the judge said the math teacher and soccer coach, who has a master’s degree in counseling, knew “how to get inside the head of a minor.”
Maucione was sentenced to five years of probation and ordered to undergo sex-offender counseling.
His 16-year-old-victim described herself as bright and confident before he started sending sexually explicit pictures and text messages. She talked of her despair after other students spread rumors and blamed her for the incident.
“I was shunned by society, practically exiled and treated like less of a human from friends and teammates I had figured would stand by me,” the young woman wrote in a letter the prosecutor read in court.
“I would catch people pointing at me,” she wrote. Comments were posted online. When she got a part-time job, one of her new co-workers asked her, “Oh, aren’t you the one who had sex with their teacher?” she wrote.
“Ten, twenty, fifty years from now,” she wrote, “will I be known as the girl who supposedly had sex with a teacher or simply for my successes?”
In an attempt to prevent teachers from becoming too close to students, school boards are adopting policies to guide teachers in maintaining strict professional lines in their electronic communication with students and players.
Mike Yaple, a spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association, estimates that 15 to 20 percent of districts now have policies that prohibit teachers from “friending” students on networks. The policies also ban teachers from giving out private cell or home numbers without district approval. All “e-contacts” with students must be made through school computer and telephone systems and communication between coaches and players should be sent to all members of a team.
“We’re really seeing the first generation of teachers who grew up with social networking,” Yaple said. “What a lot of districts are finding is that what might seem acceptable to those younger teachers might not seem professional behaviors to those who have been in education for awhile.”
Some districts have also warned teachers that school administrators will periodically conduct Internet searches to find out if teachers have posted inappropriate comments or materials online.
Steve Baker, spokesman for the New Jersey Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said he is not aware of any school districts in the state that are aggressively monitoring their teachers’ social networking sites “but I’m sure that is happening in some districts.”
It is unclear whether any districts have considered searching Facebook and other postings during the hiring process.
In Glen Rock, Superintendent David Verducci said teachers, coaches and others who come in contact with students are informed of school policy to avoid emails or texts with students or communicating via social networks. When a text or call is required, staff must keep a log — a message that’s hammered into staff at orientation and training sessions throughout the year, Verducci said.
“We instruct our folks to stay away from kids in the social media for everyone’s protection,” Verducci said.
A new computer system launched this year districtwide makes it even less likely for improper contact to occur. Staff, students and parents are linked into a system that provides homework assignments, grades and other vital information. Emails can still be exchanged, but these can be monitored.
“This is a side benefit,” Verducci said.
The veteran educator lamented the impact the cluster of cases has had on his profession.
“I can’t tell you the intensity of my feelings about these cases,” he said. “We’re grossly offended by this.”
More than half of the 23 cases reviewed by The Record involve male teachers or coaches accused of inappropriate sexual contact with teenage female students or players.
Another four cases involved children 13 and under, including that of Carlos Merchant, a Hackensack resident and former soccer trainer at the Sports Factory in Lincoln Park, who was sentenced in May to eight years in prison. He admitted he performed a sex act on an 11-year-old girl and made an 8-year-old girl touch him inappropriately.
Two defendants were charged with possessing child pornography.
Eight defendants pleaded guilty and received penalties ranging from probation to 22 years in prison. Four are enrolled in Pretrial Intervention programs that could result in their charges being dropped if the program is successfully completed. The other cases are pending.
Just last month, a grand jury indicted two former Paramus Catholic High School employees on 25 counts of engaging in illegal sexual behavior. Artur Sopel, who was the school’s vice president of operations, stands accused of engaging in sexual activity with two teens during a trip to Europe. Michael Sumulikoski, a substitute teacher and assistant football coach, is accused of engaging in sexual activities with one student on the trip.
The arrests “took everybody by surprise,” said Tim Smith, the father of a sophomore and vice president of fund raising for the parent association. Smith said there were “no red flags” about the two employees charged in the case.
“I think most people know that this kind of thing can happen anywhere and it has happened everywhere,” Smith said.
Experts say there’s no profile of a teacher or coach who turns into an abuser.
Philip Witt, a forensic psychologist who worked more than a decade at the state prison for sex offenders, wishes “there was some way to give somebody a psychological X-ray to determine if they might be a predator. But it simply doesn’t exist,” said Witt, who served on the attorney general’s sex offender risk assessment task force.
In some cases, sex abusers “seek out a position of authority for the purpose of having sex with a minor,” said Witt. However, those cases are more the exception than the rule, Witt said.
The more common explanation is that a teacher or coach goes through a turbulent time — a divorce, midlife crisis, a struggle with substance abuse — and develops an inappropriate emotional connection with a minor that evolves into sexual desire, Witt said.
In Witt’s view, if the teacher or coach hadn’t worked with children, it’s likely they might never have abused.
Molinelli said the cases are disturbing because “it’s the trust issue.”
“We all talk to our children about not befriending strangers, but we for the most part teach them to trust in their teachers and coaches,” said Molinelli, who has coached youth baseball. “When that trust is violated, it goes against the fabric of what we teach our kids.”
David Clohessy, director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a national organization, agreed.
“The betrayal is the harm,” he said “It’s always devastating to the youngster.”
In cases involving older teens and their teachers, “it can be more psychologically damaging because predators are often more skillful in making older kids feel complicit and consenting,” he said.
Gaps in screening
The arrests have put parents on alert. School officials have been forced to reassure nervous communities. Teachers are feeling the sting of increased scrutiny.
And now law enforcement officials are warning parents of a new danger. The region has experienced a proliferation of paid coaches and trainers who work for unregulated businesses or club teams. Because they aren’t affiliated with schools or any of the major youth leagues, there’s less of a guarantee that these coaches undergo criminal background checks or are subject to rules governing their interaction with players.
It’s already happened. In West Milford, a martial arts teacher pleaded guilty last February after he was accused of coercing girls into having sex by using an oath of obedience they took as part of their training. Trent Young was tried in federal court because prosecutors said he transported the girls across state lines for the sexual activity. He was sentenced to 22 years in prison.
“Parents really need to be finding out as much as they can about these coaches and businesses,” Molinelli said.
Robert J. Shoop, a Kansas State University professor and author, sees an uptick in the number of cases of coaches abusing players.
“There’s been a significant increase in the number of reports of coaches both in school, university and civic organizations exploiting children,” said Shoop, author of “Sexual Exploitation in Schools: How to Spot It and Stop It.”
“All organizations have to understand it can happen anywhere, on any team, at any school,” Shoop said.
The recent arrests can give the impression of an epidemic among trusted coaches, but in reality, the cases involve a fraction of people in those fields.
“As horrendous as these cases are, they’re isolated,” said John McCarthy, Montclair State University professor and co-founder of the Yogi Berra Museum’s Coaching Institute, which runs programs for North Jersey high school and recreation coaches.
“There are over 300 schools that participate in athletics in New Jersey. Because it’s a cluster of cases, it’s got everyone on alert.”
The impact of the cases is enormous, experts and local coaches said.
“When athletic directors are interviewing coaches for jobs, they’re going to have a whole lot more questions,” said Robert Gilbert, a co-founder of the coaching institute and professor of Exercise Science and Physical Education at Montclair State. “They’re going to make a lot more phone calls.”
At coaching seminars, McCarthy and Gilbert remind coaches of proper behavior — no meetings with closed doors, no practices where spectators aren’t welcome, no compromising situations.
“This fall we didn’t even need a textbook,” McCarthy said. “All we needed was the newspaper.”
In the past three years, 23 teachers, coaches and school officials in North Jersey have been arrested or pleaded guilty to sex-related charges involving children. They include:
* Scott Rubinetti, Lyndhurst High School’s head football coach, was charged with sexual assault and endangering the welfare of a child for allegedly having a relationship with a high school senior during the 2009-10 school year, the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office announced Jan. 25. The 39-year-old Nutley resident was also charged with witness tampering.
* Kyle S. Daniw, 32, of Wayne was arrested Jan. 18 on charges of endangering the welfare of a child after authorities said he engaged in sexual conduct with a 16-year-old sophomore at Passaic Valley High School in Little Falls, where he was a history teacher and coach.
* Joseph Greco, 27, a Park Ridge High School teacher, was arrested Jan. 7 and accused of having sex with student. Authorities said the student, who has since graduated, was in her junior or senior year of high school when the relationship began in 2010.
* Michael Sumulikoski and Artur Sopel, two former Paramus Catholic High School employees, were indicted by a grand jury Dec. 21 on 25 counts of engaging in illegal sexual behavior with four female students — three of them during a school exchange trip to Europe in February. Sopel, 31, of River Edge, is accused of engaging in sexual activity with two female students during the trip. Sumulikoski, 27, of Elmwood Park, is accused of engaging in sexual activity with one of the female students during the trip. Authorities said a fourth victim then came forward and claimed she had engaged in sexual activities with Sopel in May 2010, when she was a student at the school.
* Bruce F. Gordon, an Upper Saddle River school employee, was arrested Dec. 20 after school officials allegedly found child pornography on his computer. Gordon, the district’s director of building, grounds and maintenance, is a Wanaque resident.
* Michael Boris, a 30-year-old Lodi resident who worked for Bogota High School for seven years in several coaching and extracurricular positions, was charged Nov. 23 with three counts of endangering the welfare of a child and two counts of aggravated criminal sexual contact. He was accused of having sexual conversations with several students over the Internet and inappropriate sexual contact with one student.
* Scott Van Hoven, a drama teacher at Paterson’s John F. Kennedy High School, was accused of having sexual intercourse with a 16-year-old student. Van Hoven, a Parsippany resident, was charged with sexual assault, criminal sexual contact and endangering the welfare of a child. He was indicted in June and his case is pending.
* Derick Jerinsky, former assistant band instructor at Ramsey High School, pleaded guilty and was sentenced in June to three years in prison. He was charged with aggravated criminal sexual contact, endangering the welfare of a child and obscenity after he allegedly engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct with female high school students.
* Ilya Krakinovskiy, 28, of Fort Lee was arrested May 17, 2010, and accused of having inappropriate contact with a female student from Leonia High School, where he was working as a student teacher. He was charged with endangering the welfare of a child. He’s no longer employed at the high school and entered a Pretrial Intervention program which is scheduled to end March 29. Charges will be dropped if he successfully completes the program.
* Patricia Gallegos, 25, of Rutherford was arrested in April and charged with endangering the welfare of a child after authorities said she engaged in inappropriate sexual conduct with a 14-year-old student at Robert L. Craig School in Moonachie, where she worked as a part-time substitute teacher.
* Mark C. Sorenson, a 58-year-old Clifton resident who was employed as a teacher at Paramus Catholic and also worked as a tutor, entered a two-year-long Pretrial Intervention program in March 2010, and charges will be dropped if he successfully completes the program. He was arrested in 2009 after being accused of showing photos of naked women to a girl he was tutoring, who was not a student at Paramus Catholic.
* Takuya Ichikawa, a Cliffside Park resident, was charged with three counts of sexual assault and three counts of endangering the welfare of a child after he allegedly fondled a 7-year-old boy at a Japanese cultural school. He was admitted into Pretrial Intervention, and all charges will be dropped if he successfully completes program Oct. 12.
* Francisco Lindo, a Clifton resident and a math teacher in Union City, was sentenced to five years in prison in December for having an ongoing sexual relationship with a student that included some afterschool encounters at his Clifton home as well as sexually explicit video chats and texts.
* Gianfranco Maucione, 30, who taught math and coached soccer at Becton Regional High School, was sentenced to five years’ probation in June and ordered to attend sex offender counseling. Maucione pleaded guilty to official misconduct after he was accused of exchanging more than 11,000 sexually explicit pictures and texts with a 16-year-old female student.
* Carlos Merchant of Hackensack, a soccer coach at a facility in Lincoln Park, was sentenced to eight years in prison in May after he admitted performing a sex act on an 11-year-old girl and made an 8-year-old girl touch him inappropriately. He must serve 85 percent of sentence.
* Trent Young, a West Milford martial arts teacher, was sentenced last February to 22 years in prison after pleading guilty in federal court to charges that he took two female students and a third girl across state lines to have sex. Prosecutors said he coerced the girls into having sex by using an oath of obedience they took as part of their training and at other times he used force. He died in prison in November.
* Jonathan J. Titmas, a softball coach and substance-abuse counselor at Wayne Valley High School, pleaded guilty in March, served 45 days in jail, and must serve three years of probation. He was accused of having sex with a 17-year-old student.
* Joseph Ponsi, 63, who worked three decades as a guidance counselor at Palisades Park Junior-Senior High School before retiring in 2004, was sentenced in March 2010 to four years’ probation. He pleaded guilty to endangering the welfare of child after being accused by police of transmission and possession of child pornography.
* Patrick DeFranco was sentenced to five years in prison in 2010 for performing a sex act on a 13-year-old male student in a classroom closet in Morris County. He must also register as a sex offender under Megan’s Law.
* Adam Melzer, who coached basketball in Teaneck, was sentenced in August 2009 to three years in prison, but the sentence was suspended. He must register as a Megan’s Law offender and have no contact with families or work with youth. Melzer pleaded guilty in 2009 to endangering the welfare of children and admitted he not only collected naked photographs of players, but showed a pornographic tape starring minors to at least one child.