NORTH WILDWOOD – In a letter to a parent, who reported the alleged bullying of her eighth-grade daughter to Margaret Mace School administrators, the school’s superintendent said the allegations were found to be “unsubstantiated.”
Lizzy Paynter, the student, said in an interview with the Herald that a fellow student at the K-8 public school told her he would “blow her brains out” like her father did to himself. Paynter’s father was a veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and eventually committed suicide, her mother said.
Melissa Hook, Paynter’s mother, and Charlie Hook, her stepfather, pulled their daughter out of the school after the alleged incident to enroll her in Wildwood Catholic Academy, where they will pay tuition.
What they said they didn’t expect was the school to deny that the incident ever took place.
In the letter, dated Dec. 22, which was obtained by the Herald, Superintendent Christopher Armstrong stated, “The investigation into this alleged act of harassment, intimidation, and/or bullying has been completed, and, based on the findings of that investigation, the District did not find evidence that your child was the victim of the investigated act… Accordingly, the District finds that the allegations associated with this investigation are Unsubstantiated.” (The word ‘unsubstantiated’ was capitalized and underlined by the letter’s author and not the Herald).
Charlie and Melissa Hook said their daughter has no motive to lie.
“It angers me,” Melissa Hook said in an interview. “They didn’t believe my daughter. So, basically, this kid can say whatever he wants to her. My daughter goes to try and report it, or tell somebody about it, and they say, ‘Oh, we don’t believe you.’ That’s what they’re saying with this letter. They’re telling kids, if anything happens, we’re not going to believe you.”
The Hooks used an official complaint process, which is state-mandated and available to report accusations of bullying, harassment and/or intimidation in New Jersey schools, which triggered a required written response to the allegations from the district.
The complaint process requires the school to investigate the matter and present the findings in closed session to the school board. Then, the parents must be notified of the investigation’s results and corresponding action the school will take.
“The nature of the investigation consisted of a review of available video evidence, individual interviews with all students who were present during the alleged act of harassment, intimidation, and/or bullying, and interviews with any and all teachers and/or staff members who were present during the alleged act of harassment, intimidation, and/or bullying,” the letter stated.
In the interview, the Hooks said it is still important for them to challenge the school’s handling of bullying, even though their daughter is no longer enrolled.
They believe they are sticking up for other students and standing up to an administration that they say has swept serious and credible bullying accusations under the rug for far too long in order to maintain a more pristine reputation for the school.
They said they would request a hearing before the school board, something the letter said they can do if they disagree with the investigation’s outcome. They are also interviewing attorneys to help them navigate their case. They said they still feel hopeful that the truth will prevail.
“The board can only act on what’s reported to them and the whole key to this whole situation is Armstrong. He is the person who relayed the information,” Charlie Hook said. “How could he be policeman and then both judge and jury? … I would put 99% of this whole issue on him.”
Armstrong did not respond to a request to comment for this article and, in the past, said he would not comment on specific accusations but felt there was no culture problem at the school.
The Hooks are not the only ones with complaints against this student, or about the way complaints have been handled by administrators in the past.
At a protest outside the school Nov. 30, 2022, which was attended by more than a dozen parents and former students, other parents recalled similar experiences their children have gone through, finding little relief for crippling teasing and harassment from peers.
At the protest, multiple parents and students pointed to problems with the one student, who also made the alleged threat against Paynter. That student, whose name is being withheld by the Herald because he is under 18, remains enrolled at Margaret Mace.
According to previous Herald reporting, Jessica Mellina, another student, also left Margaret Mace this fall because of issues with the individual.
Mellina told the Herald she was subjected to an insulting verbal attack, but despite it being reported, the accused bully was permitted to go on a field trip the next day, while Mellina remained back at the school because she was not comfortable going on the trip with the other student, who is the same person Paynter said threatened her.
When her mother, Carolyn Mellina, complained to the school in the fall and expressed an interest in pulling her daughter out, Carolyn Morey, a school administrator, asked the mother to keep Mellina in a few more weeks, so she would be counted in enrollment numbers that determine funding. Carolyn Mellina’s account of that conversation was corroborated by a recording obtained by the Herald.
Jessica Mellina now goes to a Middle Township school because she did not want to stay at Margaret Mace, and her mother said she is actively looking into therapy for her daughter.
The same accused bully was also seen in multiple disturbing videos, which were obtained by the Herald. In one, which the newspaper previously published, the accused bully is seen wielding an apparent handgun. The video is several years old, according to sources, and an investigation revealed the gun was not a firearm, but rather an air gun.
A video submitted to the Herald by a different parent shows a TikTok post from the accused bully, in which he films himself, then flips the camera around as he pages through a school yearbook, zooming in on different student’s school portraits and names, offering commentary on them, including discussing his past experiences and relationship with each of them.
The parent who provided the video said she filed police charges when the student threatened her daughter and also alerted the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
“Let no one feign ignorance here,” she said.
When the camera pans to one white student’s portrait in the provided video, the accused bully, who is Black, said, “This kid’s a racist. I told him to kill himself.”
Then, about another student, he says, “We fought and I kind of beat him up. Well, I did beat him up.”
Commenting on another, he said, “This girl never showed up to school, and when she showed up to school, she was so annoying.”
The Herald also learned the accused bully received in-school suspension this year after an incident in which he was accused of tripping another student who has special needs.
Juvenile Court Weighs In
The accused student recently appeared in a juvenile court proceeding, where he faced terroristic threats charges for the accusations made by Paynter.
After a Zoom hearing conducted by a hearing officer in Family Court, the charges were knocked down to simple assault, a disorderly persons offense, according to a source with knowledge of the proceedings.
Melissa Hook said she and her daughter appeared for the hearing and told the hearing officer why they went to the North Wildwood police station to file a complaint as a result of the incident.
Melissa Hook said the hearing officer scolded her for her role organizing the protest outside the school and for Facebook activity about the issues.
The hearing officer, Shirley Robinson, told Melissa Hook that “two wrongs don’t make a right” and said she should not have held the protest, which Robinson felt targeted a particular student in an attempt to get him expelled from the school, according to the source.
However, Melissa Hook felt the protest and any Facebook posts, which she said were private, were not attacking any student, but rather calling for the administration to be more responsive to bullying complaints. She said she felt she had exhausted the available recourse but saw little action and still had a daughter afraid to go to school.
Robinson, who is not a judge, said the accused student would receive a deferred disposition for three months, and if he complies with court requirements during that time, the matter will then be dismissed, according to the source.
A request by the Herald for court records in the case was not approved because it is a juvenile matter.
All parties have an ability to present the case to a judge if they do not agree with the hearing officer’s findings. A judge will review the findings regardless.
During the hearing, accusations were also made that Melissa Hook used a racist slur toward the student when they saw each other out in public, according to the source. She denied the allegation in an interview.
The Hooks said they will continue to fight for their daughter. They look forward to being heard in front of the school board and said they are satisfied with the outcome of the court proceedings, though they were disappointed by the hearing officer’s tone toward Melissa Hook.
If they don’t get the desired result from the school board, they can then appeal to the state Commissioner of Education, the letter from Armstrong stated.
In the letter, Armstrong said counseling services would be offered to all students involved in the incident, adding that supervision between classes will change, a teacher’s aide will be present for physical education classes, “general professional development regarding adolescent development will take place,” there will be Botvin Life Skills Training for middle schoolers, and the school will implement the StopIt app, a tool for anonymous reporting.
In an email sent to Armstrong Dec. 20, Charlie Hook wrote, “I hold you, as Superintendant, responsible for my Step Daughter Elizabeth not being able to finish her Education at the School she has been in since kindergarten.”
To contact the reporter, Shay Roddy, email email@example.com or call 609-886-8600, ext. 142.
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