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Wednesday, April 24, 2024

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Parents, Students Say Violent Threats Part of Bullying Problem at Margaret Mace

A still frame from a video provided to the Herald

By Shay Roddy


WARNING: Audio and text included in the video may be offensive to some. Viewer discretion is advised. Some parts of the video have been edited by the Herald to conceal the identity of the involved juvenile.
NORTH WILDWOOD – A group of protestors holding signs, some reading “Stop Death Threats”, “Remember Columbine”, and “Protect Our Children”, gathered outside Margaret Mace School to make a plea to administrators to take violent threats and other bullying at the school more seriously.
Some current and former students, along with their parents, say that reporting bullying to administrators is leading to no relief. 
A few point to one student who has allegedly threatened other students to the point where they feel afraid to go to school. The same student appeared to be wielding a firearm in a Snapchat video, with text that included a threat and a homophobic slur.
The video, obtained by the Herald from a screen recording of the post, is of the Margaret Mace student and is several years old, according to multiple sources with direct knowledge of the circumstances but who were not authorized to comment on it publicly. The Herald is withholding his name because he is under 18-years-old.
The student was in the school Nov. 30 while one of his classmates spoke to the Herald from home. Lizzy Paynter, an eighth grader at Margaret Mace, a K-8 public school serving North Wildwood and West Wildwood, lost her father, a veteran, to suicide in 2020, as a result of what his family described as PTSD.
Paynter said she was not in school due to the bullying issues she has experienced recently, mostly caused by the individual in the video holding the gun. In one instance, Paynter’s mother, Melissa Hook, and stepfather, Charlie Hook, said the student told their daughter he would “blow her brains out” like her father did to himself.
“They didn’t do anything about it punishment wise,” Paynter said. “They told us there wasn’t much that we could do.”
North Wildwood Police Chief John Stevenson referred questions to public information officer Lt. Katherine Madden, who said the department is aware of the video with the student holding a gun.
Requests for police records related to the incident were still being reviewed by the city’s attorney, Madden said. She did confirm the individual in the video was charged with terroristic threats, though without the complaint it is unclear which incident that was in regard to. Sources not authorized to speak publicly but familiar with the circumstances surrounding the video also indicated that after investigation the gun in the video was not believed to be real.
Superintendent Christopher Armstrong said in an interview he could not comment on individual accusation involving specific students but stressed that bullying is not a cultural problem at the school.
The 20-25 parents and former students standing on the sidewalk across from the school in a relatively silent protest disagreed.
Protestors said there are problems communicating with administrators. They claim that little to no action is being taken by the school in regards to bullying. Charlie Hook and Mellissa Hook said they recently filed an HIB338 form, a state mandated bullying reporting procedure.
Though Armstrong said he could not talk about any individual case, he said the standard protocol after a HIB338 complaint is received the school would launch an investigation into the incident and will present the findings to the superintendent, who would then present those findings to the board in a closed session at their next meeting. The board would then determine a course of action.
Another protesting parent said she had her child transferred out of the school at the beginning of the school year after an incident where the same troublesome student barged into the child’s classroom and verbally attacked her by calling her “peperoni face” and “ugly.”
The student, Jessica Mellina, said in an interview she used to throw up regularly at school because being there made her sick to her stomach. Mellina did not want to attend a school field trip shortly thereafter because the other student was still allowed on the trip despite receiving a written warning for the name-calling incident.
Mellina hung back at school while the other student went on the trip.
“I got told I should just find a way to get less sensitive,” Mellina said.
Her mother, Carolyn Mellina, called Carolyn Morey, Margaret Mace’s Supervisor of Pupil Personnel and Supervisor of the Child Study Team, to express her frustration and interest in taking Jessica out of Margaret Mace.
In the conversation, a recording of which was obtained by the Herald, Morey can be heard asking Carolyn Mellina to keep Jessica in for a couple more weeks, until Oct.15 when the school’s enrollment is tabulated, so that Jessica would be counted and the school would receive the associated funding for the year.
Armstrong said he was unaware of the conversation until it was played for him by the Herald, but that he does not condone what was said and believes student safety should always be the number one priority. He said any handling of the incident would be kept confidential as a personnel matter.
A former Margaret Mace student, Chanel Carr, now 18, also joined the protest. She said four years ago, things weren’t much different. She described painful mornings of consistent teasing when the whole school used to gather in one place mornings before the first bell.
She and her mother both said that they met with administrators but found little-to-no action taken by the school in response to their reports.
They say they were met with a complaint that they do not live in the school district, however, and had to go to the school board to prove their residence. Cecily Carr, Chanel’s mother, said she felt this was an act of retaliation meant to intimidate.
“Instead of fixing the issue, they tried to come after us to try to get us kicked out of the school,” Cecily Carr said in an interview. “We were met with more bullying.”
Armstrong again said he cannot comment on specific accusations but said there is no retaliation against people who report bullying and there is nothing unusual about regularly checking to make sure all students are residents.
Armstrong also said one example of an area where the school did take action was to eliminate morning gatherings in what’s known as the “blue seats” where the alleged bullying occurred.
Armstrong said he had not spoken with students or teachers about the protest and did not go outside to engage with protestors or to view the demonstration.
Those there protesting said that is unusual, since Armstrong is usually on the front steps each morning, greeting students as they arrive.
The Herald will continue to follow the alleged bullying at the school and will follow up when more information is made available by the police department.
To contact the reporter, Shay Roddy, email sroddy@cmcherald.com.

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