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Complaint against Shamong school board member on posts

SHAMONG A state ethics complaint has been lodged against a Shamong Board of Education member for Facebook posts that make pejorative references about district teachers and endorse student physical force to deal with bullies.

SHAMONG A state ethics complaint has been lodged against a Shamong Board of Education member for Facebook posts that make pejorative references about district teachers and endorse student physical force to deal with bullies.

In a complaint dated April 9, former Shamong School Board President Diane Tallaksen alleges that board member Greg Vitagliano wrote public posts in 2013 that violate state School Ethics Act provisions, including protecting "the welfare of all children in the school district," and supporting and protecting "school personnel in proper performance of their duties."

Among the posts the complaint attributes to Vitagliano is a reference to district teachers as "our effed up educators." The writer also wishes "my kid would listen to me and pummel the little em-effer," referring to a troublesome child.

The complaint also quotes the writer as posting: "Be warned. My kid has been given the right to kick the [obscenity] out of anybody deserving of."

The complaint comes a few weeks after Shamong Township Education Association president Karen Clementi, at a public meeting, complained about the posts, which she described as "disparaging references to the staff and hostile threats toward a student and family member in the district." She did not name the board member.

Clementi said the union, which represents teachers and other staff in the district, which has more than 900 students, and has been in contentious contract negotiations, took a vote of no confidence in the board member and was calling on the board to censure him and for him to resign.

The union had obtained what appear to be Facebook screen shots with Vitagliano's name starting in January 2013 and ending last January. They include profanity, mocking references to President Obama, and the comment that "there is a whole bunch of not teaching going on" at his son's school. The posts are no longer publicly viewable.

Vitagliano, in interviews, refused to confirm or deny the posts were his. He defended his First Amendment rights, appeared to defend some of the posts, and accused the union of "strong-arming a school board member during negotiation time."

Vitagliano is a member of the district's negotiating team. The teachers' last contract expired in June 2013.

The New Jersey School Boards Association has a suggested policy about social media and school board members, but districts do not have to adopt it and Shamong has not.

Shamong has its own policy about social media and teaching staff, holding them to a higher standard than the general public. Frank Cavallo, the Shamong board's chief attorney, said it does not apply to board members.

Spokesmen for the state School Ethics Commission said they were barred from acknowledging or commenting on ongoing complaints. If a complaint is found to be justified, the commission can recommend that the state education commissioner impose sanctions ranging from a reprimand to removal.

Vitagliano, in interviews and a statement, depicted the actions against him as a ploy by the union, whose leaders he accused of turning away from a fair offer. He said Tallaksen, though not a union member, is a "supporter" and substitute teacher in the district.

"I am now being attacked in the public domain by the teachers union because I refuse to give in to their . . . stepped-up tactics to get me to resign from the negotiating committee and from the Board of Education" because of not agreeing to a salary increase "over the county average," Vitagliano wrote. "I will not step down because I have done nothing wrong!"

He also said his son had been bullied.

"This is the group that failed to protect my child," Vitagliano said of the union members.

Clementi said that complaining publicly about the Facebook posts "had nothing to do" with the unresolved contract, which is before a fact-finder. She said she reported the posts to Superintendent Christine Vespe last winter shortly after a member of the public informed the union of them. She said she brought them to the board after seeing no action.

"Our main thing is the safety of the students," she said.

She added: "I don't know why you would put things [like that] on a public site for children to see."

Vespe, in an e-mail, said staff and student safety concerns were "taken seriously and ... handled in the appropriate matter.' She and Board President Melissa Ciliberti said the matter was being handled by district counsel.

Tallaksen, who said she was "flabbergasted" by the posts as a former board member and thought Vitagliano should step down, said she was told by Vespe and Ciliberti that the matter was being handled by the board's attorneys. Dissatisfied, Tallaksen filed her complaint.

"We have all these regulations about bullying, and this is what you do? I was beside myself," she said of the posts.

"I feel when you have that position, you are a public person, and as a public person, you have to be accountable to a higher standard," Tallaksen said.

Cavallo, who said he learned of the ethics complaint Friday, also questioned the motive for the union's complaint.

"You're being sucked into what is essentially a labor dispute," he said.

He said he did not see a conflict in his representing Vitagliano as "a member of my client" and advising the board on the Facebook matter.

He declined comment on discussions he had with Vitagliano on the matter, including if he asked him if the posts were his.