Lawsuit says Montclair schools didn’t stop sexual assaults in early 2000s
By LOUIS C. HOCHMAN
A woman who alleges she was groomed and sexually assaulted by a Montclair High School math teacher in the early 2000s is suing the school district, saying it failed to protect her from a predator.
"Defendants elected to stick their head in the sand and do nothing, and as a result, exposed possibly hundreds of vulnerable students to a predator who used his position of authority as leverage over [the] plaintiff to seduce, groom, coerce and, ultimately, sexually assault her," the lawsuit says.
It argues school officials knew about or should have known about sexual assaults the lawsuit alleges were committed by then-math teacher Martin Smith, who the lawsuit says worked for the district from 1998 through 2004. The lawsuit doesn't name the plaintiff, citing the sensitive nature of the allegations and the damages it says she suffered.
Schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said Tuesday he couldn't comment on matters pending litigation, but that sexual assault and sexual harassment wouldn't be tolerated in the district.
"Anyone engaging in such inappropriate, and potentially criminal acts, will be referred to law enforcement," he said in an email to Montclair Local. "The district maintains a number of school policies and regulations prohibiting such conduct and providing for an investigatory process through the affirmative action officer. However, students, parents, and staff with any concerns of this nature should immediately contact my office for assistance and support."
Ponds became superintendent in 2020. He didn't work for the district at the time of the alleged incidents.
The lawsuit doesn't reference any criminal charges, civil suits or other accusations made against Smith. The name "Martin Smith" is a common one, and individuals with that name appear in listings for dozens of civil and criminal court cases in New Jersey. So far, Montclair Local has not been able to identify one that clearly applies to the same individual. A call to the firm that filed the suit — Laffey, Bucci and Kent — hasn't yet been returned.
The lawsuit alleges that at "no point did [the school district] take any steps to remove Smith or end his predatory behaviors upon the plaintiff and likely other students, both at Montclair High School and at other schools where he subsequently taught and had access to minor students."
A LinkedIn profile for a Martin Smith who taught math in Montclair from 1998 through 2004 says he later taught at South Brunswick, South Plainfield, New Brunswick and North Brunswick schools in New Jersey, and at Gwinnett County Public Schools in Georgia. The last role, at Gwinnett County, was for 11 months ending in May of this year, according to the profile. It says he's now a certified presenter on contract with Desmos, a math education software company, and that he lives in Auburn, Georgia.
An attorney returned a message sent to that LinkedIn profile Tuesday, but said she hadn't yet seen the filing.
The lawsuit alleges the Montclair district "failed in their most basic legal and moral duties to guard against a predator."
It says the plaintiff — referred to only as "Jane Doe" — began attending Montclair High School in 2002 and had Smith as a math teacher. In the autumn of that year, it says, "Jane" began to stay after class into a lunch break for extra help with her math studies.
During that time, Smith told her he knew many students had a crush on him, but he was "good guy" who would "never do anything like that," the lawsuit says.
It says Smith began grooming "Jane," touching her leg or rubbing his leg against hers. He later gave her his phone number, it says.
The lawsuit alleges Smith coerced the girl into meeting him off campus. Once, at a hotel, it says, Smith began kissing and groping the girl, saying they wouldn't do anything else, and then raped her. It says he again raped her at his house.
Under New Jersey law, an individual can be found guilty of first-degree aggravated sexual assault if a victim is less than 16 years old, and the individual has supervisory power over the victim — as a teacher does for one of his or her students. A second-degree sexual assault charge can apply if the victim is 16 to 18, and the individual has supervisory power.
The lawsuit says on another occasion, Smith took the girl to see a therapist "in an effort to convince [the] plaintiff that it was acceptable for the two of them to engage in an adult sexual relationship." The lawsuit doesn't name the therapist.
The suit alleges school officials knew about the activity, or should have. It says that on one occasion in 2002 or 2003, an administrator walked into an office where Smith was kissing and groping the girl, but walked out, telling Smith, "Make sure you keep your door open."
"Despite concerns and suspicions over Smith’s conduct with plaintiff, [the Montclair Township School District] never investigated Smith or reported him to any authorities. Instead, MTSD let Smith loose to continue working among, and possibly sexually abusing, minors in school settings," it says. "Additionally, MTSD ratified the conduct of Smith by their actions and/or inactions."
The lawsuit says as a result, the girl — now an adult — has struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder and has difficulty with intimate relationships and normal friendships.