State Sen. Joseph Pennacchio is pledging his support for four local residents who were sued by the Roxbury High School librarian for allegedly defaming her in public as a “child predator” over the library’s inclusion of books they call inappropriate for children.
Roxbury isn’t in Pennacchio’s 26th legislative district. But the Republican senator, a well-known conservative firebrand who’s facing a primary challenge, issued a news release on Friday saying, “these moms should have the right to raise concerns about their children being exposed to sexually explicit and highly offensive materials in their schools.”
Pennacchio’s statement follows the lawsuit filed last month by librarian Roxana Russo Caivano, who alleges that a group of township residents have made her the target of “a civil conspiracy to defame her character” with allegations online and in public that she’s allowed pornography in the library.
Named in the complaint as defendants are Roxbury residents Thomas Seritis, Christina Scarbrough Balestriere, Kristen Cobo and Katrina Albo as well as unspecified defendants who “conspired and/or engaged” in the campaign.
The suit, filed in state Superior Court in Morristown, seeks unspecified compensatory and punitive damages, a jury trial and legal expenses.
The residents have labeled her Caivano a “child predator” and accused her of “luring children with pornography,” said her husband and attorney, Anthony Caivano. Russo Caivano, a Roxbury native who has worked in the district for 15 years, has faced “really disgusting” attacks,” the lawsuit said.
The alleged harassment centered on the graphic novel “Gender Queer: A Memoir,” and other books in the library that critics have called sexually explicit but which also have been approved by the state as part of its sex education and gender-identity curriculums.
“It should not be controversial to suggest that cartoon depictions of young children engaging in sexual acts do not belong in our school libraries,” Pennacchio wrote in his statement. “Unfortunately, we were warned when we held our Senate Republican hearing on parental rights last year that this woke sexual indoctrination of our kids would continue to escalate, and that has proven to be the case.”
The two sides differ on just how far the librarian’s critics have gone.
“We have not seen any statements by the parents that could be considered even remotely defamatory of Roxanna Cavaino,” the residents’ attorney, Corinne Mullen, said on Friday. “Ms. Cavaino and her lawyer husband openly participated in this public debate in social media. Ms. Cavaino referred to the parents as fascists in social media posts.”
Anthony Caivano responded: “I’ll give you the quote from the lips of Kristen Cobo at the March 6 Board of Education meeting: she said my wife’s behavior was the act of a child predator,” he said Friday. “What else do you need to say?”
Minutes from the March 6 Roxbury Board of Education meeting posted online say that Cobo and Balestriere both spoke during a public comment period “about the library books.” But the minutes do not include their specific comments.
Asked if publicly labeling a librarian as a “child predator” would be appropriate, Pennacchio said he was unaware of Caivano’s account of the March 6 board meeting. But he had seen some of the graphic images in question during a meeting this week with Cobo, he said.
“If you showed what I saw in a workplace, you could be possibly brought up on charges of sexual harassment,” Pennacchio said. “And certainly they should not be shown to children. Period and end of conversation.”
The Roxbury controversy mirrors disputes that have flared across the nation where some parents have objected to sex education and LGBTQ-themed lessons and materials. In New Jersey, outcries have multiplied over the past two years as districts implemented new state curriculum standards adopted in 2020.
“These books were approved by the administration, they were approved by the board of education,” Anthony Caivano said. “If they want to object to the books, go through the process of removing the books. All the books they object to are LGBT. ‘Gender Queer’ went through the whole challenge process and these parents lost. So their strategy is to go after librarians.”
Responding to Pennacchio, Caivano added: “We agree that everyone has the right to speak out on those concerns, but nobody has the right to defame anyone. Our case is about defamation, not about book challenges. I am sure Senator Pennacchio would agree that slander and defamation should not be tolerated.”
“School librarians are not immune from criticism,” countered Mullen, the attorney for the Roxbury residents. ” They are making decisions that directly affect parenting choice. What we are saying is that this is a debate that should continue openly and publicly on social media and elsewhere without the threat of a money judgment against parents exercising their First Amendment rights.”
Cobo and Balestriere also operate a website listing their objections to titles they say are available in the high school library. The list includes “Gender Queer,” an autobiographical tale written by nonbinary author Maia Kobabe. The novel includes illustrations of sex acts and has been the target of conservative opposition.
“I stand by Kristen Cobo and Christina Balestriere for their efforts to safeguard their children,” Pennacchio wrote.
Pennacchio’s 26th district runs through central Morris County into northern Passaic County and includes Parsippany, the Hanovers, Pequannock and Ringwood, among other towns. He is facing a challenge in the June 6 Republican primary from Morris County Commissioner Tom Mastrangelo, who has criticized Pennacchio for failing to stand up to the “woke leftist mob in Trenton.”
William Westhoven is a local reporter for DailyRecord.com. For unlimited access to the most important news from your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.