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Predator coaches can escape to college sports. One N.J. official wants to close the loophole. | #childpredator | #kidsaftey | #childsaftey

A loophole in a state law designed to prevent predator coaches from finding new jobs needs to be closed, a lawmaker said one day after an NJ Advance Media report revealed a New Jersey coach ascended to the collegiate level years after facing sexual misconduct allegations.

Assemblyman Jay Webber (R-Morris) said he will introduce a bill requiring K-12 school administrators warn colleges about potential educator hires previously accused of sexual improprieties. It comes after an NJ.com investigation found John Denuto was hired as Union County College’s first wrestling coach in 2019, a decade after he was fired as a coach from Sayreville War Memorial High School following sexual misconduct allegations. In 2020, Denuto was arrested on charges of sexually assaulting a teenager.

Webber co-wrote a law passed in 2018 requiring K-12 schools ask if teachers and coaches had previously been investigated for sexual improprieties. The so-called “passing the trash” law demands districts share complaints against educators unless the cases were proven false or unsubstantiated. It also bans negotiated separation and confidentiality agreements concealing such information.

“Union County College didn’t have to ask about any past allegations because they’re not required,” Webber said of the Cranford college.

Denuto worked at 21 high schools as a special education teacher, wrestling coach or assistant football coach over a 21-year period, including at eight high schools after the sexual misconduct allegations arose in 2009, the NJ Advance Media investigation revealed.

He pleaded guilty April 14 to two counts of endangering the welfare of a child and one count of invasion of privacy as part of a plea agreement, admitting he fondled the genitals of a 16-year-old former student. A 29-count indictment in 2021 accused the then-46-year-old Spotswood resident of criminal sexual contact involving five other alleged victims from 2016 to 2019, but those charges were dropped as part of his deal.

The “passing the trash” law went into effect after Denuto had secured his jobs on the high school level. But it does not include colleges.

“This is just horrific. This is the reason that we passed the ‘passing the trash’ law to begin with,” said Sen. Anthony Bucco, a Republican from Morris County and the minority leader of the state Senate. “When you read a report like this, where this partially fell through the cracks, there’s no doubt that we need to go back and look at that law and figure out how to close those loopholes.”

Webber says the state needs to prevent problem teachers and coaches from finding jobs with colleges and ensure school district administrators do not remain silent.

“New Jersey county colleges, Princeton, Rutgers, etc., should all fall under this,” Webber said. “It’s the Jerry Sandusky-Joe Paterno problem. …

“Because that’s every bit as much a concern — 18-, 19-, 20-year-old kids shouldn’t be subject to this either.”

Denuto will be sentenced in September and faces up to seven years in prison. He had taught the 16-year-old at Sayreville Middle School, and they exchanged phone numbers after the victim’s eighth grade graduation to discuss private coaching, according to the affidavit of probable cause.

“It’s a disgusting story, and it really ticks me off,” said Webber, who believes the “passing the trash” law would have prevented Denuto from resurfacing at high schools throughout the state if it had been in place at the time of his initial firing.

However, education experts say loopholes remain. Under the law, a job applicant would have to note in a written statement that he was under investigation for sexual misconduct when applying for subsequent positions. The districts that employed him would also have to reveal if their former employee had been accused. But if the allegations were dismissed or deemed unsubstantiated, it would not have to be noted, according to the New Jersey School Boards Association.

“In general, there has to be some kind of finding of abuse by an entity, agency or court, etc. or some employment action taken as a result of a finding or pending investigation…” Janet Bamford, chief public affairs officer for the New Jersey School Boards Association, told NJ Advance Media in a statement. “If there is an investigation that yields a finding that the accusation was false or unfounded, it generally falls outside of the requirements.”

Denuto was fired as Sayreville’s wrestling coach after a group of wrestlers and their parents alleged he sent text messages to his athletes about his sex life, physically assaulted wrestlers and strip searched his athletes under the guise of safety checks for skin conditions.

The Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office and the state Division of Youth and Family Services investigated the allegations, but took no action, according to court documents. Sayreville continued to employ Denuto as a teacher after it fired him as coach, moving him from the high school to the middle school. He subsequently sued the district after his termination as coach and secured a $25,000 settlement.

“The facts of this case also show that there was a horrible failure on the system’s part,” Bucco said. “These administrators and school districts that knew of this stuff and never really made any communication or effort to alert the other school districts is unacceptable.”

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Keith Sargeant may be reached at [email protected].

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