Pass the Trash Law:  A Good Place to Start, But . . .

Mar 29, 2024 | Press Releases & Op-Eds

Op-ed by Joseph E. Colford, PhDBoard of Directors, Prevent Child Abuse-New Jersey

and Gina Hernandez, MA, LPC, CCTPExecutive Director, Prevent Child Abuse-New Jersey  

Public Law 2018 c.5, more commonly known as the Pass the Trash Law, has been in effect since June 1, 2018.  The purpose of the law is to ensure that every student in New Jersey enrolled in a public school, a charter school, or a nonpublic school remains free from school employees with a history of child abuse or sexual misconduct.  In short, the law is designed to keep children safe.

Previously, there was nothing in place to keep educators with documented histories of child abuse or sexual misconduct from leaving one school district and finding employment in another one.  The Pass the Trash Law now requires school applicants to disclose to potential school employers any such charges or investigations into their conduct over the last 20 years and the school districts themselves to expand the background checks of their applicants, including contacting all former employers.  The law also forbids school districts from accepting non-disclosure agreements with school employees at the time of their termination due to instances of sexual misconduct or child abuse.

However, a report issued this month by the State Commission of Investigation has found that the implementation of the law has resulted in “inconsistent” and “haphazard” practices from district to district with little or no uniformity.  Some school districts either disregard the requirements of the law or follow it improperly, and too many applicants falsify their sexual misconduct/child abuse disclosure requirements.  

Given the pressure placed on school districts having to hire more full time and substitute teachers as quickly as possible in order to keep pace with a growing shortage, it is clear that uniformity and consistency in the implementation of the Pass the Trash Law must be assured to all school children and their families.  Until now, the 593 school districts throughout the state have had to develop their own methods of collecting, reporting and verifying information regarding an applicant’s child abuse and sexual misconduct history without any real oversight from the State Department of Education.

The Commission’s report includes several recommendations for addressing the gaps in the implementation of the law.  First, it suggests that the State DOE be responsible for overseeing compliance with, and enforcement of, the Law.  It can do so by developing uniform disclosure forms to be used by all districts to insure consistent and reliable reporting, by creating a centralized database of information related to teachers and other school employees who have been found to have engaged in child abuse or sexual misconduct, and by establishing a mechanism to enable a student and a parent or guardian to report complaints of child abuse or sexual misconduct. 

In order to both ensure child safety and to safeguard teachers and school employees from false allegations, the Commission also recommended that the DOE create uniform investigative procedures to look into abuse and misconduct reports and that school officials be properly trained to carry out these investigations. There were too many instances of staff members’ violations of the Law having been classified not as abuse or misconduct, but as “conduct unbecoming” or “bullying,” as per the Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying Law of 2011.  Trained investigators can help distinguish one allegation from another.  Finally, the Commission recommends that the DOE be given the jurisdiction to impose penalties for all violators and that it remove the 20-year limit on an applicant’s employment history.

The Commission’s recommendations appear reasonable, although they do include a new set of responsibilities for school administrators and Boards of Education.  Some may groan under the weight of these additional requirements and the accompanying paperwork to complete and forms to maintain.  However, given the proper support, resources and general oversight from the State DOE, individual school districts throughout the state will be able to implement these recommendations.  After all, a greater good is served by ensuring that perpetrators of child abuse and sexual misconduct stay clear of school age children in New Jersey.