Posted on August 25, 2011

Paterson Teacher Who Called Students ‘Future Criminals’ in Facebook Post Defends Herself in Hearing

Leslie Brody, North Jersey, August 24, 2011

The Paterson teacher who ignited a firestorm by calling her first-grade students “future criminals” in a Facebook post defended herself Wednesday in a Newark hearing on whether she should lose her job.

Jennifer O’Brien told an administrative law judge that she wrote the post in exasperation because six or seven unruly students kept disrupting her lessons, distracting children who wanted to learn.

One boy had recently hit her, another had struck another child, and she had given the principal several disciplinary reports on students during her three months in charge of a class of 23. She said they also stole a box of stickers she hid in a closet to use as prizes.

“I was speaking out of frustration to their behavior, just that build up of ‘I don’t know what else to do,’ and I’m actually scared for their futures, for some of them,” O’Brien said. “If you’re hitting your teacher at 6 or 7 years old, that’s not a good path.”

O’Brien, of Elmwood Park, posted her Facebook remark to 333 friends on March 28. Immediately it was forwarded outside her circle. It ripped through the district and within days brought an onslaught of national media attention, with network news trucks camped outside School 21. Critics called her comment racist and painful for a community already ravaged by violence, drugs and low expectations for its young; others sympathized with an overwhelmed teacher who made a dumb mistake in writing that was amplified by the lightning speed of the Internet.

The post, written after she got home from work, read “i’m not a teacher–i’m a warden for future criminals.”


After the uproar, the Paterson school district suspended O’Brien without pay and filed charges to revoke her tenure for unprofessional conduct. District officials said they hoped to wrap up the case quickly; by law, she goes back on the payroll Sept. 4, after 120 days of suspension. O’Brien joined the district in 1998 and makes $60,513.


O’Brien’s testimony followed two days of hearings that gave a window into a beleaguered district as school officials tried to calm furious parents and local pastors sought to defuse tensions in their congregations. Two days after the posting, a small group of parents and activists protested outside the school.

The district called as a witness the Rev. Kenneth Clayton, president of the Paterson branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored people. According to the hearing transcript, he said at first he thought the post was a “sick joke.”

{snip} “I think people were just overwhelmed with a sense of anger which we were just trying to make sure that we were able to calm … because we didn’t want it to turn into some type of angry demonstration.”

Clayton said the comment “helps us realize again that racism has not been erased from our country … I know that children can be testy and tedious and all those things, but to say in first grade there that you’re a warden for them, that’s reprehensible … if a teacher or any adult leader could look at children like that in the first grade and think that, then the children are doomed.”

O’Brien’s lawyer, Nancy Oxfeld, said in an interview the post was a mistake but not racist. “If you make a comment that is not a racist comment but you’re a white person and it’s made about students who happen to be black and Hispanic, there’s a presumption that it’s racist,” Oxfeld said. She noted in court there was no record that any parent complained about O’Brien before the incident or that she spoke inappropriately to students.


School 21, with about 700 children in grades kindergarten through eighth grade, sits in one of Paterson’s most troubled areas. About half the students are black, half Hispanic, and 80 percent qualify for free lunch. Capt. James Smith, executive director of security for Paterson schools, testified that in the neighborhood, police got 9,000 calls for service in the past school year, including 41 for fights with weapons, 29 for robberies, and hundreds for gang activity, drugs and other “quality-of-life issues.”