HACKENSACK, N.J. -- A Clifton High School history teacher accused of having sex with a 16-year-old is the latest in a crop of teachers to be arrested for sexual offenses involving students, including a Wood-Ridge teacher and coach charged as recently as last week.
Kristin Leone, 26, was arrested Monday evening for allegedly having sexual contact with a student in two encounters in April, including one on school grounds.
The first incident took place in a classroom where Leone was tutoring the boy after school, said Passaic County Prosecutor Camelia Valdes. The encounter allegedly involved contact of a sexual nature. In the second incident at Leone's home in Clifton, the teacher is accused of having sexual intercourse with the student, Valdes said.
Authorities said there was no sign that anyone was coerced, but the relationship was not legal, the prosecutor said.
"She's 26. He's 16," Valdes said. "He is her student and a subordinate to her, so while there's no evidence that she coerced him or forced him physically, legally he cannot consent."
In the past three years, North Jersey schools have dealt with 26 arrests or convictions of teachers, coaches or other school employees accused of sexual abuse or inappropriate relationships with children. Authorities say they don't know the reasons for the spike in activity, but suspect greater awareness and reporting of wrongdoing has played a role.
Last week, Jillian Clementi, a parochial school social studies teacher and softball coach at Wood-Ridge High School, was arrested on a sexual assault charge on allegations that she had a sexual relationship with a student.
Clifton in recent months stepped up its outreach to parents, students and teachers on the issue of sexual misconduct, encouraging them to report suspicions of wrongdoing. The campaign was launched as the district grappled with its own issues regarding safety and sexual conduct - two students have reported being sexually assaulted at the high school in the past year, and in March 2011, the school principal resigned after being accused of sexual harassment by a parent.
In the latest incident, Superintendent Richard Tardalo said school officials learned of the alleged relationship with Leone and a 16-year-old boy from a teacher and student. The school reported the allegations to police Monday, who launched an investigation.
The Prosecutor's Office and Clifton police detectives executed a search warrant and collected evidence that showed Leone engaged in sexual conduct with the boy on two occasions, the Prosecutor's Office said in a statement.
Leone was arrested late Monday and charged with sexual assault, endangering the welfare of a child, two counts of criminal sexual contact, luring and enticing a child and two counts of official misconduct. She was released on $100,000 bail Monday night.
Leone has denied the charges, her lawyer Ronald Ricci said Tuesday. "She maintains her innocence and is going to be pleading not guilty," Ricci said. Leone is scheduled to be arraigned in state court in Paterson on Tuesday.
Ricci said his client has an exemplary teaching record and is well-liked by students and colleagues.
"She's never been in trouble in her life," he said. "She's never had any disciplinary record. She's just not that type of person."
Leone is accused of exchanging text messages with the boy, but Valdes would not say what was said or when the exchanges began.
She also would not say when school officials became aware of the situation, and Tardalo did not specify when the information was reported.
Leone, who turned herself in, is not married and has no children. An online profile about Leone says she was a full-time social studies teacher at Clifton High School since January 2009. She graduated from Montclair State University with a degree in psychology in 2008.
Leone stated on her resume that she was a dean's list honoree and a nominee for the New Jersey Distinguished Student Teacher Award while at Montclair State.
She also worked after school as a part-time instructor for the Bloomfield High School front percussion ensemble, or pit. Director of Bands Brendan Hughes said Leone worked there for about four seasons, but chose to leave the job last winter. He said he was not aware of any problems while she worked at the school.
"There were no issues with her here," he said.
She also volunteered for the 2010-11 band season in the Ramsey school district, but was not an employee, said schools Superintendent Roy Montesano. Volunteers, he added, are not allowed to be alone with children at any time.
Leone has been playing music since she was 3, according to her profile. As a high school and college student, she joined the Raiders Drum and Bugle Corps, a non-profit performing arts group in North Jersey, where she played percussion.
She returned as a volunteer teacher last year, but resigned in August. Raiders executive director Tom Maiello said he was "shocked" when he heard the allegations. He said the student performers respected Leone and she "didn't seem that type."
"She was very good teacher and was always concerned about her image and professionalism," Maiello said.
That sentiment was echoed by Christian Montes, 19, a former student of Leone, who described her as "quiet" and a "good teacher."
"I never would have thought that about her. She was always serious about her job," said Montes, who graduated from Clifton High School in 2010.
Tardalo addressed the incident in a letter to parents posted online Tuesday and sent to media. "As soon as the incident was reported to the high school principal, the police were contacted and the teacher was immediately removed from the classroom," he said.
The teacher was placed on leave, Tardalo added, and was instructed to remain off school property and not have any contact with students.
Word of Leone's arrest quickly spread Monday evening, as students sent each other texts and Twitter messages about it.
"I think it's disgusting," Dr. Ismail Khater, 47, said as he waited outside of Clifton High School for his daughter Tuesday. "Yesterday, the kids were texting each other about it. I heard about it from my daughter."
The school has endured several scandals of a sexual nature in the past two years. In December 2010, the mother of a special-needs student filed complaints against former Clifton High School Principal Jimmie Warren, alleging he exposed himself and touched her breasts during meetings about her child in May and June. He resigned four months later.
In June 2011, a 15-year-old student reported that she was raped in an east-wing stairwell at the school during a midmorning class change on May 3 in an incident involving two older students. James Urbina, 19, pleaded not guilty to aggravated criminal sexual assault, aggravated sexual contact, and criminal restraint. His next court date is May 21. Another 17-year-old student, who was charged with sexual assault, has had his case resolved.
In January, police arrested a 17-year-old high school student on sexual assault charges in two incidents that reportedly occurred that month in the same east-wing stairwell. Those incidents were not the result of force, police said, but rather were acts of criminal coercion that several sources in the district have said involved cell phone texting.
Since the last incident, the school district has urged students, parents and teachers to come forward with any knowledge of inappropriate behavior or social media exchanges.
Schools across North Jersey are trying to identify and prevent instances of assault and relations involving staff. Some schools are forbidding teachers and coaches from befriending students on Facebook and banning them from giving students gifts or rides home to guard against situations that could potentially lead to sexual abuse of children.
Valdes said more inappropriate relationships were developing over text messages and social media and it was important to continue dialogue and training in school communities about the issue.
She also said she would not "paint a broad brush" about Clifton High School in light of recent incidents there. "It's not to say this is not happening in other schools," Valdes said.
Assistant Passaic County Prosecutor Joseph Del Russo, a veteran of the special-victims unit that investigates sex crimes against children, said Tuesday that the office had been awarded a $19,385 Children's Justice Act grant to help the county improve response to child abuse. The Prosecutor's Office will use the funds for a website to inform educators on how to deal with and report abuse cases, he said.
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