N.J. school ‘did nothing’ to protect bullied 14-year-old before she died by suicide, lawsuit says (2024)

The family of a 14-year-old student in the Middletown Township school district — who died by suicide in 2022 after she was allegedly bullied by classmates — has filed a lawsuit saying school administrators failed to protect the girl.

Jocelyn Walters was a sophom*ore at Middletown High School North when she died by suicide on Sept. 9, 2022, after “an extended and persistent pattern of harassment, intimidation, bullying and abuse,” according to a lawsuit filed last month by her parents.

Jocelyn was a “sports fanatic” who loved playing soccer, looked up to Michael Jordan, and dreamed of breaking barriers as a lawyer one day, said Fred Walters Jr., Jocelyn’s father.

Her death represents “a colossal failure by this school” and those in the school responsible for her, Walters said Tuesday.

READ MORE: After student suicides, N.J. schools try new ways to stop bullying

“There’s failures across the board with Jocelyn’s story and I don’t believe it’s isolated,” Walters said. “There needs to be change. I am determined to make change.”

The complaint alleges officials in the Monmouth County school district were aware of the harassment and failed to protect Jocelyn when she was bullied.

In addition to the school board, the lawsuit names former superintendent Mary Ellen Walker and other administrators and counselors.

“Out of respect for the family, and because we typically do not comment on pending litigation, we will be responding to these allegations solely through the legal process,” said Eric L. Harrison, who is representing the defendants in the case.

The complaint also accuses Rising Swell Mental Health in Hazlet and one of its employees failing to properly treat Jocelyn before her death by suicide.

Rising Swell Mental Health did not immediately respond to a request to comment.

Christian Schuermann, who represents the employee of Rising Swell named in the complaint, did not immediately return a call Tuesday for additional comment.

In an answer to the complaint filed Tuesday, Schuermann said his client “acted in a reasonable and proper manner.”

“Any injuries or damages which may have been sustained by the plaintiff were the result of an unavoidable accident,” Schuermann wrote in defense of his client.

N.J. school ‘did nothing’ to protect bullied 14-year-old before she died by suicide, lawsuit says (1)

According to the family’s lawsuit filed May 7, a classmate began sharing personal information about Jocelyn with others during the 2021-22 school year “in an attempt to belittle and demean” her.

The harassment extended to cyberbullying, when the student posted to anonymous social media sites known as “MHSN Clowns” and “Confessions” to “harass, intimidate, bully and abuse Jocelyn and others,” according to the complaint.

The student also removed Jocelyn from various group chats and cropped her face of out pictures posted on social media, “all in an attempt to belittle and isolate Jocelyn,” the suit alleges.

The alleged bully’s older sister, also named as a defendant in the suit, threatened Jocelyn over text, according to the lawsuit.

Walters contacted Middletown High School North in early 2022 about the bullying and “abuse” directed against his daughter, but the school took no action to assist or support Jocelyn, the lawsuit claims.

The lawsuit also describes several instances in which Jocelyn expressed or exhibited signs of distress at school, but officials did not intervene.

Jocelyn wrote about the bullying in her creative writing/journalism class, which was reported to the guidance department, but no action was taken, according to the lawsuit.

In “a cry for help” during the school year, Jocelyn locked herself in a high school bathroom and would not come out until another student was able to coax her out, the lawsuit claims.

On March 12, 2022, Jocelyn was hospitalized after attempting suicide, the suit states.

Mental health experts say suicide is a complex topic and research shows bullying alone is not thought to directly cause people to take their own lives. But, bullying can be a contributing factor in suicides, experts say.

Between the 2018-19 and 2021-22 school years, the state’s public schools saw a 12% increase in confirmed bullying incidents, according to state statistics. The rise was part of a larger trend in student misbehavior seen statewide in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cyberbullying is also a growing problem. In 2021, 16% of high school students said they were electronically bullied, including through texting, Instagram, Facebook or other social media, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Two days after Jocelyn’s first suicide attempt, Walters met with school officials to voice concerns “that the high school was doing nothing to support Jocelyn,” according to the lawsuit.

While Jocelyn was hospitalized, the student bullying Jocelyn posted in a group chat that she was “honestly going to try and keep instigating her until she actually does something to me that I can get her in trouble for,” the lawsuit claims.

Jocelyn visited Rising Swell Mental Health in Hazlet on Aug. 26, 2022 due to her depression and suicidal ideation, according to the lawsuit. A nurse allegedly failed to give her adequate treatment or tell her parents she should be hospitalized.

When the new school year began in September, Jocelyn was placed in some of the same classes as “her tormenter,” the student who was bullying her, the lawsuit states.

On Sept. 8 and 9, Jocelyn went to the school nurse, who did not alert Jocelyn’s parents of the visits, the lawsuit states. Hours later, Jocelyn died by suicide.

“What occurred here is so involved and there’s never any easy answers but, the adults should be in the room. The adults that are that school did not act like adults. With every sign, they just didn’t answer it,” said Jeffrey Youngman, the attorney representing the Walters.

The lawsuit filed on Jocelyn’s behalf is seeking punitive and compensatory damages.

Editor’s note: NJ Advance Media typically limits reporting on suicides to those that occur in crowded public places, involve public figures or, in special circ*mstances, where there is a larger public impact. Suicidal thoughts and behaviors can be reduced with the proper mental health support and treatment. If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

N.J. school ‘did nothing’ to protect bullied 14-year-old before she died by suicide, lawsuit says (2)

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N.J. school ‘did nothing’ to protect bullied 14-year-old before she died by suicide, lawsuit says (2024)
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