Heroic N.J. teacher was sacrificed for political cause in hidden video
Alissa Ploshnick risked her life to save the lives of a dozen Passaic schoolchildren. She threw herself in front of a careening van to protect her students and landed in the hospital with broken ribs, a fractured wrist, a badly bruised pelvis and glass cuts in her eyes. She could have died.
The president of the United States, Bill Clinton then, sent her a letter. It read:
"I recently heard about your act of heroism and wanted to commend you for your selflessness. True heroes are rare in today’s world. And, all too often, those who are really making a difference in our communities go unnoticed and unrewarded. I am delighted to be able to give you the recognition you deserve. You are an example for all of us, and I applaud you for your sense of duty.’’
But that was then, in 1997. This is now.
Now, the veteran Passaic special education teacher has been smeared in a sneak attack video, punished by her school district and made a pawn in the relentless anti-union crusade of a governor who apparently wants to ride his Jersey tough guy image to the White House.
"I felt like I was raped,’’ says Ploshnick referring to the moment she learned that what she thought was a private, even flirtatious, talk with a "nice" young man who bought her drinks was really part of a political scam to discredit her union in an web videotape called "Teachers Gone Wild.’’
Saving children’s lives, risking death for them, wasn’t enough to earn a pass from political incivility.
Nor was a solid record over a nearly 20-year career during which she was cited by William Paterson University for training student teachers and by Fairleigh Dickinson University’s dyslexia program for her "fine record of experience," "strong interpersonal skills" and "dedication to learning." She says she spent $9,000 of her own money on school supplies for her students, made sure a child in her class made his dental appointments by bringing him there and was just asked to be a godparent to the child of another student.
"Give me a smile and say hello and I’ll do anything for you,’’ says Ploshnick. "I’ve always done it. It’s hard to reteach your heart and your brain.’’
Ploshnick, 38 and single, was unlucky enough to be hit on in an East Brunswick bar in August by a young guy working for pretend journalist and admitted criminal James O’Keefe, the conservative attack dog who pleaded guilty to federal charges of entering a U.S. senator’s office under false pretenses. He is on probation. He also tried to embarrass CNN recently by setting up a planned, taped attempt to seduce reporter Abbie Boudreau. It failed when one of his operatives tipped Boudreau off.
O’Keefe’s operative bought drinks for Ploshnick and began asking about tenure. Ploshnick talked about how difficult it was to fire a tenured teacher. She said some things she shouldn’t have said. She quoted someone else as having used a racial obscenity, the so-called "n-word."
But the phony Lothario sitting with her — plying her with drinks and laughing and egging her on — taped her every word. Including that word.
O’Keefe made Ploshnick, a teacher who saved the lives of children, an unwitting star in a web-based movie, a phony exposé of nothing but the cynicism of ideologically driven pseudo-journalists. All O’Keefe managed to do was ruin the reputation of a woman who should be honored as a hero — and was, not only by Clinton but also by Montel Williams and Oprah Winfrey, a fan of Gov. Chris Christie’s.
Christie recently praised O’Keefe’s secret taping of Ploshnick and others and said: "If you need an example of what I’ve been talking about for the last nine months — about how the teachers union leadership is out of touch with the people and out of control — go watch this video.’’
Asked whether the stories of Ploshnick’s sacrifice and heroism changed his view, Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak replied: "What do these stories have to do with recent events? What should they have to do with recent events? They are completely separate and have nothing to do with one another."
"I think it’s so unfair that I should be in the middle of this,’’ says Ploshnick. "I’m not the monster I’ve been made out to be.’’
But Christie’s right about one thing. People should watch this video and contemplate how it was obtained, how it carelessly destroyed the career of a private person, a hero who saved the lives of children, a woman who repeated a word so many people — black and brown and white — used in the past and still do today. Just listen to the radio.
Watch this video and ponder how a governor who made his reputation prosecuting criminals would praise the work of the self-admitted violator of federal law. Watch and consider whether, sober or lit, they ever said something that might be secretly taped and used against them to destroy all the good work they have done.
alissa-ploshnick-2.JPGAmanda Brown/The Star-LedgerAlissa Ploshnick, a special education teacher, holds a proclamation from the Passiac County Board of Freeholders lauding her for pushing two students out of harms way on Main Ave. in Passaic in 1997. She was hit and injured.
They should watch it and wonder about political correctness. That is, after all, why she was suspended by the Passaic superintendent.
"Politically correct is the theme of the day,’’ says Robert Holster, the superintendent, to explain why she was punished despite her courage and sacrifice — and the knowledge she did not use the slur to describe anyone but to report what someone else said.
"We’re getting hammered,’’ Holster says about local reaction.
Alan Zegas, the Chatham lawyer representing Ploshnick, said he was investigating the "circumstances leading to the harm suffered by Alissa to determine whether legal action should be taken" against O’Keefe and his crew. Zegas, one of the state’s best-known trial lawyers, said the actions of the crew members in surreptitiously taping her were "deeply disturbing.’’
Zegas said O’Keefe and others showed up at her apartment in Lincoln Park twice after she was secretly taped. He said he is investigating the possibility of bringing stalking and harassment charges. A violation of probation could put O’Keefe in jail.
Ploshnick says she will not contest the administrative penalties against her.
"The comments were made,’’ says Ploshnick, who returned to work Friday. "The district is protecting the district. I’m not proud of what I said.’’ Then she adds, "I just wanted to get back to my kids.’’
O’Keefe was asked for comment via e-mail and phone. He did not respond. He has argued the videotape represents "investigative journalism" to expose racism among teachers union leaders — which by the way, she is not. Ploshnick was attending a conference of the New Jersey Education Association to learn more about special-education law when she was secretly taped.
Ploshnick, who still suffers pain from the injuries she sustained saving those children, says her life will never be the same because of the secret taping. She has stopped dating and taken herself off dating sites. She won’t go to a bar and she is afraid of meeting strangers.
"I just want to make sure what happened to me won’t happen to anyone else. No one should have to live with what I’ve lived with,’’ she says.
And let’s face it: Alissa Ploshnick wasn’t punished, her reputation wasn’t destroyed, her professionalism and heroism disregarded, because she repeated a word someone else said.
She was sacrificed to a political cause.