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A trial judge may enter a directed verdict of liability against a school board for failure to supervise employees who behave inappropriately, but damages apportionment is a job for the jury, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled July 28. The justices agreed with Bergen County Superior Court Judge Isabel Stark that the Elmwood Park Board of Education was so negligent in supervising an elementary school principal, and in failing to react to his erratic behavior, that it is liable along with him. The court ordered a new trial on apportionment of damages, but since the ousted principal, Samuel Bracigliano, never responded to the suit, the school board could be hit with the full tab. “We agree with the trial court that ‘a conclusion of negligence on the part of the [Board] was irresistible from the proofs,’” Justice Barry Albin wrote for the unanimous court in Frugis v. Bracigliano, A-156-01. “The undisputed facts reveal that the Board did not fulfill its most basic obligation — to protect the children in its care — because it failed to implement effective rudimentary reporting procedures that would have informed it of Bracigliano’s misconduct and because it grossly disregarded critical information, either in its hands or easily accessible, that called for scrutiny of [his] activities.” Bracigliano was principal of Gilbert Avenue Elementary School from 1982 until his arrest on Nov. 29, 1990, after investigators discovered in his home 176 photographs of naked male students, taken in his office. He was convicted of official misconduct. The current suit, alleging negligence and intentional torts, was filed by two families on behalf of their sons. One of the keys to determining the board’s negligence was the fact that no action was taken when, as soon as he assumed his job, Bracigliano covered the windows of his office with paper, a violation of N.J.A.C. 6:22-5.4(c), Albin wrote. State monitors ordered that the paper be removed, yet no action was taken to enforce the order. In addition, Albin noted that witnesses testified at the trial that the board was aware that Bracigliano regularly attended weigh-ins of nude athletes at the town’s high school. While the school superintendent found Bracigliano’s attendance at the weigh-ins to be inappropriate, he took no action. Reinstating the directed verdict that the Appellate Division had overturned, the justices nevertheless held that the Tort Claims Act, N.J.S.A. 59:9-3.1, requires that a jury apportion damages. Albin added, though, that at retrial the jury should be instructed on the heightened duty of school boards to ensure students’ safety from foreseeable harms, “particularly those presented by the intentional acts of school personnel.”

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