A former Teacher of the Year who admitted having sex with a 15-year-old student was spared prison time Monday as information surfaced about her psychiatric condition and what role it may have played in her behavior.
Erica DePalo initially was charged last year with aggravated sexual assault and could have faced up to 10 years in prison if she'd been convicted. Under terms of her plea agreement, she received a three-year suspended sentence and will be subject to lifetime parole supervision. The 33-year-old also will have to forfeit her teaching certificate and register as a sex offender.
"I feel nothing but remorse for my actions,'' a tearful DePalo told state Superior Court Judge Peter Ryan in a brief statement. "I apologize to those who were indirectly or directly affected by my conduct.''
The 2011 Essex County Teacher of the Year pleaded guilty in February to child endangerment and admitted the relationship with the student, a boy who was in her honors English class. She left the courtroom Monday without speaking to reporters.
Included in the pre-sentencing report and referenced during Monday's hearing were revelations that the Montclair resident has suffered from depression and anxiety since she was in college and that several years ago she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
It was only during in-patient treatment after her arrest that she discovered she had been incorrectly prescribed antidepressants instead of mood stabilizers, defense attorney Anthony Alfano said. The drugs' effect may have helped her overachieve and succeed in the classroom, but it contributed to her errors in judgment, he said.
"I'm not trying to make excuses; she knew what she was doing,'' Alfano told the judge.
The drugs "made her think she could do anything. She was functioning in the classroom, but no one knew,'' he added later.
Assistant prosecutor Tony Gutierrez defended the plea agreement.
"Every detail was taken into consideration,'' he said. "The intent was a fair resolution based on the facts. This was done with the consent of the (student's) family.''
DePalo's suspended sentence means if she doesn't abide by the terms of her parole she could still serve time behind bars.
The judge said he was convinced that "all the parties here are anxious for the healing process to begin.''