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Kristian Gonyea  

Sophia Gresham of Ocean City wins the 100 during the Cape May County Track and Field Championships. Ocean City, NJ. May 10, 2019 (Kristian Gonyea/ For the Press of Atlantic City)

Former Linwood teacher not guilty of assaulting student, judge rules

MAYS LANDING — A former Linwood teacher was found not guilty of simple assault on a student Friday afternoon, overturning a conviction that came with the forfeiture of her teaching license.

Kimberley Peschi, 42, of Galloway Township, was found guilty last year of kicking a chair as a sixth-grade Belhaven Middle School student leaned back in it, causing him to fall and hit his head in February 2017. Superior Court Judge John Rauh overturned that conviction, finding her not guilty and taking forfeiture off the table.

Peschi, who remained quiet throughout Rauh’s decision, declined to comment after leaving the courtroom in dark sunglasses.

Her lawyer, Robert Agre, said Peschi was “greatly relieved,” adding it’s been a stressful time for her. Because she was found not guilty, the state cannot appeal it, he said.

Michele Tourigian, the mother of the now eighth-grader, said she was “disgusted and hurt” by Rauh’s decision.

“I don’t understand what happened,” she said before walking down the hallway outside the courtroom with her arm around her son. “The video does not lie. She assaulted my son.”

In his decision, Rauh said the surveillance footage of the incident, which is less than 20 seconds with the portion of contact only an instant, is grainy and there’s a blur. Peschi’s testimony that she was trying to right the chair was “plausible,” he said.

“Given the brief period of the time the whole incident took place, I am not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant acted purposely, knowingly or recklessly with regard to the injury to the child,” he said. “She certainly intended to put her foot on that chair, but the state of mind has to go to the injury to the child.”

Peschi, who currently works as a real estate agent, was suspended after the incident, and the charges were pursued by the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office but heard before a Northfield municipal judge in a trial that began in December 2017.

She was making $80,723 per year as a teacher, public salary data show.

Municipal Judge Timothy P. Maguire found Peschi guilty of simple assault in May 2018 and ordered her to pay about $200 in fines and court fees. Then, in September, Municipal Judge Louis Belasco decided Peschi must forfeit her public employment, saying she “went well beyond corrective behavior.”

Ospreys celebrate perseverance at Stockton graduation

ATLANTIC CITY — Ten years ago, Luana Cordeiro was days away from graduating college when she let her addiction take over.

On Friday, she finally accepted her diploma, this time from Stockton University.

“Ten years ago, my mom had already planned my funeral, she had accepted that I was going to die,” said Cordeiro, 34, of Galloway Township. “Now, she’s just so proud.”

More than 1,800 Stockton students walked across the stage at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall on Friday afternoon to receive their bachelor’s degrees.

Friday marked Stockton’s third graduation ceremony at Boardwalk Hall, and its first since the opening of its Atlantic City campus last fall. Many of the speeches to the undergraduates had the theme of perseverance.

“So much of how we successfully negotiate life can be learned from examining the characteristics of a great fighter,” Stockton President Harvey Kesselman told the graduates, citing Muhammad Ali, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the students themselves.

He told the students they can succeed because they have a choice.

“Use that choice to fight for yourself, fight for your dreams, fight for your communities and fight for those who cannot fight for themselves. These are the qualities of a leader who embodies both strength and grace, and, from one Osprey to another, I know you have it in you,” Kesselman said.

The ceremony featured keynote speaker U.S. Rep. Jeff Van Drew, D-2nd, who told the graduates to remember all the times they picked themselves up and moved forward.

“All of you here have accomplished something great. You have overcome odds, tried, failed and then tried again until you met your goal,” Van Drew told the graduates. “And remember what it is that drove you forward. What you found within yourself that made you get back up and try again over and over until you got to where you are today.”

For Cordeiro, her journey to graduation was a hard-fought battle. She enrolled at Stockton in September to earn her final credits after completing Recovery Court last year. The single mother of three works as a counseling intern at Enlightened Solutions detox facility.

At 15, Cordeiro turned to pain medication and alcohol to cope after being sexually abused.

“I put on a good front for a few years, I was a cheerleader, I was in the criminal justice honor society, dean’s list, but I was still dealing with this pain,” she said.

During her junior year of college at Kean University in Union, she dived deep into her addiction and was introduced to heroin.

“At that point, my addiction had progressed and I was too far gone, she said.

Although she only had to take her final exams to graduate, Cordeiro turned to drugs instead. They called her name at graduation at Kean, but she wasn’t there. A week later, she was in her first detox program.

“The next five years consisted of me being really bad in my addiction — jail, rehabs, psych ward,” Cordeiro said.

In 2014, she was arrested and detoxed while in jail. She said she made a promise to herself to try it the court’s way.

Atlantic County Judge Mark Sandson came to the commencement to cheer on Cordeiro, whose many convictions were recently expunged.

Sandson heard Cordeiro’s story during the last Recovery Court graduation and wanted to help her complete her degree.

“I don’t think people appropriately appreciate how hard it is to change,” he said. “So many of the things we do in Recovery Court are very grim and difficult, and we face a lot of failure, but when you have a tremendous success like this, we’re all here to celebrate it.”

Sandson, Assignment Judge Julio Mendez and Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon G. Tyner reached out to Stockton and were able to get Cordeiro a full scholarship from a program through the courts.

“We’re rejoicing,” Sandson said Friday.

 Cordeiro said she wasn’t sure she could do it, but knew she couldn’t say “no.” She attended school at night, worked full-time during the day, and took classes for her certification in alcohol and drug counseling, all while raising three children on her own.

Cordeiro plans to enroll next semester for her master’s degree in social work.

“I’m just going to keep pushing. This has taught me no matter what how strong we can be if we just put our mind to it,” Cordeiro said.

Veletta Mister, of Pleasantville, took a different route to graduation Friday.

Mister graduated from Passaic County College in the 1970s with an associate degree in marketing, and although she was accepted to Rutgers at the time, she decided to move to Atlantic City for a job in the casinos. She was laid off from Trump Taj Mahal Casino Resort when it closed in October 2016 and enrolled at Atlantic Cape Community College, then transferred to Stockton.

“I’ve always wanted to go back to school,” said Mister, who identified herself as a senior citizen but declined to give her age.

She graduated Friday with her bachelor’s degree in liberal arts.

“Anybody, regardless of your age, is entitled to an education,” Mister said. “It’s up to the individual. I wanted to complete my degree, so I did.”

PHOTOS from Stockton University's 2019 graduation at Boardwalk Hall

Edward Lea / Staff Photographer  

Stockton graduate Luana Cordeiro, 34, of Galloway Township, talks with university President Harvey Kesselman before the ceremony. Cordeiro finished her bachelor’s degree after struggling for years with drug addiction.

Edward Lea / Staff Photographer  

Patrizia Violante member of “Brigantine Garden Club on Lagoon Blvd, talks about flowers from the garden club Wednesday May 8, 2019. Press of Atlantic City / Edward Lea Staff Photographer

Edward Lea / Staff Photographer 

Quishana Parks, 22, of Atlantic City, was among the graduates Friday at Boardwalk Hall.

Atlantic City Housing Authority picks Stanley Holmes redeveloper

ATLANTIC CITY — The Atlantic City Housing Authority has chosen the Michaels Organization, of Camden, as its co-development partner for the public housing projects of Stanley Holmes Village and Buzby Village.

“One of the key reasons the board looked at Michaels is because of their residential involvement and community service programs,” authority Executive Director Tom Hannon said after the vote.

Other companies in the running were Pennrose of Philadelphia and Metropolitan Development Group of New York City, Hannon said.

It will be a year before the board will decide whether to rehabilitate or demolish and rebuild the 66-year-old Buzby Village off West End Avenue near Ventnor, and 18 months before it makes the decision regarding the 82-year-old Stanley Holmes Village off Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, Hannon said.

GALLERY: Stanley Holmes Village in Atlantic City

In the meantime, Michaels and the authority will meet with residents of the communities on a regular basis — monthly if not more frequently, Hannon said.

“First and foremost, this really starts with the residents,” Michaels Vice President Nick Cangelosi said of the planning process. “We have ideas, but we don’t want to do anything until we have copious amounts of meetings with residents of both Stanley and Buzby to determine what their desires are and work from there.”

No one will lose public housing or their income-based rent during the process of rehabilitation or replacement, Hannon said.

The Michaels Organization has deep ties to the city. Founder Michael J. Levitt is originally from Ventnor, and one of the first affordable projects he built was in Atlantic City, called Terrace Townhouse North in 1969, a spokesperson said.

It is now part of the Atlantic Marina community, still managed by Michaels.

When Levitt started the current company in 1973, its first management office was in Pleasantville, the spokesperson said.

The company now operates in 36 states. Its East Coast headquarters is moving to Camden on June 7, from its current location in Marlton, Burlington County. Its West Coast headquarters is in Elk Grove, California.

Cangelosi said Michaels has worked with the Housing Authority of Camden for decades on affordable housing and other projects.

The company also manages military housing and builds student housing in addition to affordable and market-rate housing, he said.

Michaels built housing for Rutgers University-Camden and is leasing the first market-rate apartments to be built on the Camden waterfront in about 15 years, Cangelosi said.

It recently closed on a large development at the University of California at Davis, and has built student housing at Rowan and Kean universities in New Jersey, said Cangelosi.

The company has ties to Democrat powerbroker George Norcross.

Michaels partnered with Norcross’ Conner Strong & Buckelew insurance company, and the trucking and logistics company NFI, and won approval in 2017 for $245 million in tax credits to build an office tower in Camden.

New Jersey Economic Development Authority officials have recently testified to legislators they have concerns about the award, based on questions about the truthfulness of claims the companies would have left the state if they didn’t receive the credits.

In January, the three companies announced a $1 million grant program for Camden nonprofits, along with Susan Bass Levin, president and CEO of the Cooper Foundation.

And in March, Michaels President John O’Donnell was appointed to the executive committee tf The Cooper’s Ferry Partnership, a nonprofit working on the revitalization of Camden.

The 420-unit Stanley Holmes Village, built in 1937 and expanded in 1951, is the oldest public housing complex in New Jersey. The 126-unit Buzby Village was built in 1953.

The Michaels Organization manages three affordable-housing complexes in Atlantic City and a total of 537 units, Hannon said, including Brigantine Homes on Brigantine Boulevard.

Cangelosi said Michaels is working with local architects Tom Sykes at SOSH and with Ponzio Engineering on the project.

Veletta Mister, of Pleasantville, was among Stockton University’s graduates.