09/05/2012 12:47 pm ET Updated Sep 05, 2012

New Jersey 'Teacher Of The Year' Arrested For Sexual Assault; Erica DePalo 'Eccentric,' Student Says

A former Teacher of the Year accused of sexual abuse was a loving role model and prone to inappropriate, sometimes "flirtatious" behavior, according to her former students.

Police in New Jersey arrested West Orange High School's Erica DePalo, 33, last week on charges surrounding an alleged relationship with a 15-year-old boy in her English class, the Essex County Prosecutor's Office announced Friday.

The incident has prompted mixed reactions from her past pupils -- some who recall sharing rumors of DePalo's supposed promiscuity.

"People joked about it forever," Matt Zimmer, now a 20-year-old student at Northeastern University, told The Huffington Post. "But now that wasn't actually a joke, that wasn't a stupid 10th-grader joking around."

Zimmer took DePalo's sophomore English class. While several students seem unsurprised by the allegations, others remember the county's 2011 Teacher of the Year as caring and compassionate.

Andrea Diano, 20, was a member of the junior varsity tennis team coached by DePalo when her father died. She still keeps an encouraging letter from DePalo that helped her through that hard time. "Whenever I read it, I cry," she said.

Diano, now at Fordham University, said DePalo is "definitely an eccentric person," but also "really nice."

"I was shocked and surprised at first, I didn't know what to do," Diano said. "I started to feel really bad because I had such fond memories of her."

Still, rumors that DePalo would romantically court students after they graduated and other distressing anecdotes are not uncommon.

Several individuals who took DePalo's class recalled a particularly troubling extra credit question: The teacher called each student up individually and said, “What would you say if I asked you to hang out with the chief?” -- a reference to smoking marijuana.

Sean Davis, who also competed on the tennis team, remembers DePalo as "excitable" and "self involved." "She was flirtatious with students," said Davis, 22, a graduate of Rutgers University. "If you said one thing wrong about her -- even if it was a joke -- she would be very defensive."

Prosecutors said that DePalo -- suspended indefinitely from the school district -- began a relationship with the victim June 15 and continued it through Aug. 28.

DePalo is charged with first-degree aggravated sexual assault, second-degree sexual assault and endangering the welfare of a child. Bail was set at $100,000.

NOTE: Steven Hoffer's brother was a student at West Orange High School.



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