Ex-Hillsborough principal raped 4th-grade girl ‘hundreds’ of times, lawsuit says
HILLSBOROUGH — For the second time in his life, a now-retired public school educator has been accused of raping a student. But he's never been arrested or charged with a crime.
Matthew Hoffman last worked as a principal in this Somerset Count township before his retirement in 2009. That was just months after he was accused of raping a young man for nearly four years in the 1980s, when Hoffman was a teacher in the Hopewell Valley Regional School District.
Although he was never charged with a crime on the accusations levied by that former student, a jury in a lawsuit against Hoffman and Hopewell Valley found that he committed sexual abuse and awarded his accuser $300,000 in damages in 2015. The jury was not persuaded that the school district itself held any blame.
Now, more allegations have come to light, this time involving a special-needs fourth-grade student who attended Woodfern Elementary School in 2006.
New Jersey 101.5 has obtained a copy of a new lawsuit that alleges Hoffman "sexually assaulted" the girl "on hundreds of occasions” in his office during the 2006-07 school year as his secretary sat on the other side of a closed door.
Just as in Hopewell Valley, the Hillsborough student’s accusations have not resulted in any criminal charges against Hoffman.
Township police, however, did investigate after the girl’s father notified the district about the allegations for the first time, years after the alleged abuse and after Hoffman had retired, according to an attorney for the district.
Something is going to have to be revealed to the public in order for the public to have any kind of confidence.
Details of that investigation, including a police report that might be able to shed light on why Hoffman was not prosecuted, are being kept secret by the township, which denied a New Jersey 101.5 records request by saying that its police department "will neither confirm nor deny whether an individual who has neither been charged nor arrested is, or has been, the subject of an investigation."
The Somerset County Prosecutor’s Office also did not return a detailed request seeking comment about this case. Prosecutors in the state normally do not acknowledge investigations until charges are filed.
The former Hillsborough student is now 20 years old and is identified in the lawsuit, which was filed in June in Superior Court in Somerville, as “Jane Doe.” Jane Doe is represented by the same attorney who handled the previous lawsuit against Hoffman and Hopewell Valley.
Robert Varady, the attorney for both victims, did not return several requests for comment.
New Jersey 101.5 also could not reach Hoffman for comment. Hoffman represented himself in the first lawsuit and court records showed no attorney on file for him on this case.
Hoffman retired from Hillsborough in the middle of the school year in 2009, when he was 52 years old and principal of Auten Road Elementary School. The retirement came a few months after the former Hopewell Valley student filed his lawsuit. State pension records list it as an "early retirement."
New Jersey 101.5 reached out to former school board members who were serving during the 2009-10 school year. The two who returned requests for comment said they could not remember the reason for the retirement or recall whether they had heard about the lawsuit involving the other district.
Although the alleged victims are of opposite sexes, their accusations are similar — not only in the abuse they say Hoffman carried out, but in how he allegedly “groomed” their parents.
Jane Doe says she was first abused by Hoffman in a place students and parents might think would be among the safest — the principal's office. The abuse continued on an almost daily basis until she began the fifth grade at another school, her lawsuit says.
When she started the fourth grade in September 2006, Jane Doe had been diagnosed with Asperger syndrome, which affects a child's socialization and communication skills.
Jane Doe says she was terrified to be dropped off at school, so Hoffman “cultivated a friendship and trust" with her mother, whom he began to meet every morning at the school in order to pick up the girl and escort her to class.
What he really was doing, according to the lawsuit, was taking her to his dark, locked office. There, she says, he would sit on the floor with the girl on his lap, her back to his chest and his arms wrapped tightly around her so that she couldn't move.
While she was in this "bear hug," she says, she remembers Hoffman telling her things like, “You are a pretty little girl,” and “Are you going to take a shower today? Are you going to be a clean, pretty girl?”
At first, he groped her private parts, the lawsuit says. Later sessions escalated to him penetrating her with his fingers and then his penis, it says.
After the abuse, he would walk her to class, taking her past his secretary, Susan Maglia, the lawsuit says. The complaint also faults Maglia for not intervening.
The rape occurred regularly for a year until she was transferred to another school in the district the next fall, according to the lawsuit. It's not clear whether the lawsuit's language is meant to be literal in counting the number of instances of abuse in the "hundreds." The lawsuit does not describe any assaults outside of the office or say whether he saw her during the summer.
The lawsuit says Hoffman attempted to contact her at the new school but does not explain why he was not successful.
No way of knowing
In addition to Hoffman, Maglia and the district, the lawsuit also names former schools superintendent Edward J. Forsthoffer II as a defendant. Forsthoffer, now superintendent of the Bordentown Regional School District, referred all questions to his attorney.
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All the defendants, except Hoffman, are represented by Robert Gold, who said district officials "immediately notified law enforcement" when they learned of the allegations from the former student's father.
"The Hillsborough police conducted, from what I've seen, a thorough investigation," Gold said, adding that he had read the January 2013 police report, which states that police questioned Hoffman and he denied the allegations.
Gold, of the Morristown firm Gold, Albanese, Barletti & Locascio, says Hillsborough district officials had no way of knowing about the previous allegations against Hoffman when they hired him because he had never been charged with any crime that would show up in a background check.
Gold says the district does not check job applicants' backgrounds for lawsuits — and in any case, the Hopewell Valley alleged sexual assault during the 1980s only became public with the alleged victim's 2009 lawsuit, just before Hoffman's retirement.
Former school board member Wolf Schneider says he "vaguely remembers" Hoffman's retirement.
"I honestly don’t recall the details of his resignation," he said. "I don't know how we, the board members, would have known (about Hoffman's past). We get our information from the superintendent and the assistant superintendent."
Another school board member at the time, Frank Blandino, also said he could not remember the circumstances surrounding Hoffman's retirement.
Sued but not charged
It is not uncommon for accusations of sexual abuse that surface years or decades later, when the alleged victims are adults, to result in lawsuits but not in criminal charges. That's mostly due to the statute of limitations, which prevents someone with being charged with a crime after a certain time has passed.
New Jersey in 1996 eliminated the statute of limitations in criminal cases relating to incidents that happened earlier than 1991. But in order to sue, a plaintiff still has to prove that he or she filed a lawsuits within two years of learning that his or her suffering was caused by the sexual abuse.
As a prosecutor, I would want to be looking at that entire civil case.
Robert Hoatson, president of New Jersey-based sexual abuse victims advocacy group Road to Recovery, says it's "astounding" that the fresh allegations by the former Hillsborough student have not resulted in criminal charges.
"I’m not sure how to even respond to this," said Hoatson, who learned of the Hillsborough case from New Jersey 101.5 and who had not spoken to the alleged victim or read the police report.
"She deserves a lot of credit because most children are not able to deal with that until they are well into their adulthood" he said. "Obviously, I would think the prosecutor is doing due diligence and the police are doing due diligence — I hope."
Former Morris County prosecutor Robert Bianchi, who is now in private practice, said prosecutors would rather not pursue cases that amount to little more than "he-said/she-said," but such cases happen anyway.
"Would a prosecutor prefer more corroborating evidence to support? Of course," he said.
Bianchi said it's easier to prove fault in a lawsuit than in a criminal case. He pointed to the O.J. Simpson case, in which Simpson was acquitted of murder in a criminal trial, but a jury found Simpson liable in the wrongful death lawsuit filed by Ron Goldman's family,
Criminal defendants have more constitutional protections, including the right not to testify or incriminate themselves. Prosecutors also have to prove to 12 jurors that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, whereas in a civil trial the standard of proof requires just a preponderance of evidence, which is sometimes described as 51 percent of the evidence favoring the plaintiff.
Bianchi said prosecutors will sometimes wait for a lawsuit to play out in court before determining whether criminal charges are warranted.
"As a prosecutor, I would want to be looking at that entire civil case. I want to look at the results of the civil case and see whether or not that changes my opinion as to whether we have enough evidence to go forward to prove a case beyond a reasonable doubt."
The 2009 Hopewell Valley lawsuit against Hoffman was filed by a former student and the student's wife, who say they experienced marital problems as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from sexual abuse that began in 1982, when the former student was in Hoffman's sixth-grade math class, and ending in 1986, when he was in the 11th grade.
The lawsuit accused Hoffman of intentional sexual assault and went after the district for vicarious liability, for negligence and for being a “passive abuser.”
The victim was identified in his lawsuit as "John Doe." As in the current Hillsborough case, John Doe says Hoffman befriended his parents, who were struggling with their marriage. John Doe says his mother "was just happy to have” Hoffman, “who she thought was a role model, a mentor, to help take care” of John Doe.
There was no evidence the district knew, or had any reason to know, about Hoffman’s conduct...
Hoffman began by having John Doe over his house to do yard work, the 2009 lawsuit says. The former student says the sexual abuse began in Hoffman's bedroom.
It "escalated" and later took place in Hoffman's car in remote locations or in the school parking lot, the lawsuit says.
Even though Hoffman was no longer his teacher, the abuse continued for years, including on trips to Baltimore, to Hoffman's grandmother's house and on Hoffman family skiing trips, the lawsuit says. John Doe says the abuse stopped in the 11th grade, when he finally got his own car and became more independent. The consequences of the abuse, however, continued for a lifetime, manifesting after his 1999 marriage, he says.
A school administration expert testified for the plaintiffs at trial, saying that the district did not train staff on child sexual abuse reporting even though other districts in the 1980s did.
The expert pointed out “red flags” in Hoffman’s conduct, including an evaluation that noted that he was "too involved with children and students.”
The expert said the district’s policies encouraged “activities that could lead teachers to step over their boundaries” and it “created an environment in which child sexual abuse could easily occur.”
Former district superintendent and principal Edward Gola, who presided over the district in the 1980s, testified that he encouraged teachers to be involved in their communities and students’ lives. He also said it was common for teachers to tutor students at home, but teachers were instructed to never be alone with a student.
An educational administration expert who testified for the district said sexual abuse training policies weren’t commonplace in schools until the 1990s.
The expert said Hoffman failed to observe boundaries.” But, he added, “there was no requirement at the time … for teachers to be taught or educated in boundaries at all."
Also, any “red flags” would only be so by today’s standards because it was expected in the 1970s and 1980s for teachers “to become involved with the students," the expert said.
The jury did not find that the district was either negligent or a passive abuser.
An appellate decision in April turned down John Doe's appeal seeking a new trial.
The appellate decision says "there was no evidence the district knew, or had any reason to know, about Hoffman’s conduct during Doe’s enrollment as a district student.”
Who would make this up?
Hoatson, who says he has worked with 4,000 victims over the years, says that judging by the accusations against Hoffman, that there "appears to be a pattern of behavior on his part."
"Who would make this up? Why would she?" he said about the most recent case. "She didn’t seem to have an axe to grind against the school. It wasn’t like she was mistreated and got an F in a grade."
Hoatson says authorities should be more forthcoming about their investigation.
"Something is going to have to be revealed to the public in order for the public to have any kind of confidence. I understand the privacy while investigations are going on but I think eventually something has to be said. It would be very unfair to the victim and the accused and the public, too, as well."
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5.
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