West case settled Board of Education ends five year ordeal

Despite the fact that at least on parent gave consent to a 2000 relationship between a high school guidance counselor and a 15-year old student at Bayonne High School, the Bayonne Board of Education agreed to settle a lawsuit.

Under the terms of the agreement, the school district will pay $80,000 with insurance to pay an additional $250,000.

“There have been a number of stories in the media about this incident,” said Schools Superintendent Dr. Patricia McGeehan. “Unfortunately, many of the most relevant facts have not been reported and the Board has not been able to comment – first because of the criminal investigation, and then because of civil litigation.”

Diane West pleaded guilty in 2005 to sexual misconduct resulting from a 2001 sexual relationship with then 15-year-old Christopher Castlegrande, a student at the time at Bayonne High School. A civil suit was filed by Castlegrande in 2004 against the Board of Education, former and current school employees as well as three school superintendents alleging they failed to protect him from West’s sexual assault.

West took early retirement in 2002 and later pled guilty to aggravated criminal sexual contact. She was sentenced to four years probation and ordered to register as a sexual offender.

McGeehan said the Board of Education “fully” cooperated with the Bayonne Police Department, the Hudson County Prosecutor and DYFS from the beginning of the investigation.

“As soon as the Board of Education was notified that Ms. West had been charged by the Bayonne Police Department the county prosecutor’s office, she was suspended from work and not permitted to enter Board of Education property or attend any Board of Education-related events,” McGeehan said.

When rumors surfaced in 2002 that charges would be dropped after West completed pre-trial intervention, McGeehan and the board protested in a letter to the prosecutor.

“Since my duties are to look out for the interests of the children, I feel compelled to point out definite problems that might arise under such an arrangement,” McGeehan said in the letter. “First, if Ms. West’s record were wiped clean, she would be able to gain future employment in a school system either in New Jersey or elsewhere without anyone being aware of the potential danger to children. Also she would not have to register as a sex offender and would be protected from Megan’s Law notifications. I feel it is imperative that the Bayonne Board of Education and DYFS (Division of Youth and Family Services) be part of any plea arrangements to that the final agreement protects the children of the state and elsewhere.”

McGeehan’s letter also asked the prosecutor’s advice on continued salary payments to West.

“Since the criminal proceedings concluded in January, 2005, there has been a criticism of the Board of Education that it gave Ms. West a retirement package,” McGeehan said. “Ms. West retired in June 2002 and was granted a pension by the State of New Jersey, not the Bayonne Board of Education.”

Affair didn’t happen on school grounds

Reports also wrongly suggested that sexual liaisons between West and Castlegrande took place on school property. But the lawsuit did not allege this nor did the prosecutor’s office find any evidence of this, McGeehan said.

Prior to the events that led to the charges, the school district had provided mandatory programs to the school staff on the prohibitions and inappropriateness of such relationships, programs West had apparently attended.

Media reports, McGeehan said, claimed that when Castlegrande and West were living together in 2001, they apparently associated with Castelgrande’s family and even vacationed with them.

“However, at the time this all allegedly occurred, neither the family nor anyone else ever reported this to the Board of Education,” she said. “In fact, as soon as the Board learned about this incident from the Bayonne Police Department on Dec. 10, 2001, it immediately contacted the county Superintendent’s office and cooperated with DYFS regarding the investigation.”

Silence on the case was required

Board President Bill Lawson defended the Board of Education’s silence on the situation prior to this, saying that it would have been illegal for them to comment while the matter is under criminal or DYFS investigation. The legal suit against the board also made comments unwise, since anything said might have jeopardized the suit. The board could also not comment on the settlement until the matter came up for a vote.

“The Board’s decision to enter into the settlement on this matter was made after considering various factors,” Lawson said. “(These) included the recognition that to continue this litigation could result in significant legal fees and litigation costs, as well as significant time commitments by administrators, board members and other personnel that will be better spent on other issues important to the district.”

Lawson said the district’s legal counsel recommended the settlement in order to limit any potential financial exposure if the matter was to proceed to trial.

No record of West’s alleged 1980 offence

Although West has been accused of a prior sexual offense, reported in numerous media including The New York Times, Lawson said no documentation exists to support such a claim. Reports also claim the school district had relocated West to guidance department rather than firing her.

McGeehan, although in the school district at the time, was not in the central office where she might have been privy to such information.

“Moreover,” Lawson said. “there are conflicting statements from former employees as to whether the allegations were ever made in 1980. If, in fact, any inappropriate conduct occurred in 1980, that person or person aware of the incident had a legal obligation to report it to DYFS at the time.”

This was not done.

“This Board of Education and its predecessors have always been committed to the safety of our students,” Lawson said. “We have implemented policies and training to accomplish this. We will continue to do whatever we can to product our students.


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