According to the Daily Journal and NJ.com, Jennifer Hewitt Bishop’s comment was written in response to a Facebook post questioning why Alavez’s mother was sitting in her car about 30 yards away while her children played on the swings on Sept. 16, when the girl vanished in what police believe was an abduction.
“They’re Mexican, it’s their culture,” Bishop replied. “They don’t supervise their children like we do.”
Bishop, who works as a special education in-class resource teacher in the nearby Vineland Public Schools, is now facing disciplinary action for her remarks. In a statement to local media outlets, officials called her comment about Mexican culture “offensive, inflammatory, and entirely unacceptable.”
While police have been hunting down leads, searching woods and ponds, and reviewing hundreds of hours of surveillance footage, the missing girl’s mother, Noema Alavez Perez, has faced intense scrutiny for seemingly innocuous decisions, with critics latching on the fact that she once smoked marijuana, and, after her daughter disappeared, accepted and ate a slice of pizza. Meanwhile, the ongoing investigation may have been hindered by the fact that some potential witnesses are undocumented and fear coming into contact with the police, authorities say.
Joe Rossi, the district’s executive director of personnel, told NJ.com that officials became aware of Bishop’s comments on Friday after several people messaged the Facebook page for Vineland Public Schools to report what she had said. Administrators launched an investigation and Bishop was yanked from her classroom, though Rossi wouldn’t specify whether she had been suspended or was placed on leave. He told the outlet that the school board would determine the second-year teacher’s future at a Wednesday night personnel meeting that was closed to the public.
Bishop could not be reached for comment late Wednesday.
Some have suggested that Bishop’s comments about Mexican culture weren’t intended to be malicious. Jeff Deminski, the host of a conservative political talk show on New Jersey 101.5, argued that the teacher had been trying to say, “Don’t judge this mother, she’s from a different culture, one that in my anecdotal experience doesn’t seem to bubble wrap and helicopter parent their children at every turn the way white people do,” but had expressed herself “in a manner that wasn’t artful.”
Similarly, Lou Russo, the president of the Vineland Education Association, told the Daily Journal that while he couldn’t comment on a personnel matter, he believes that social media is a “dangerous place” where comments are “often misunderstood and taken out of context by a virtual crowd that rarely takes time to think and reflect or seek clarification before they react with verbal attacks of their own.”
The search for the missing 5-year-old, which is entering its 11th day, began after Dulce’s mother called police to say that her daughter had disappeared. Alavez Perez, who is 19, grew up in Bridgeton. She was 14 when her daughter was born, and she told the Philadelphia Inquirer that her parents, who emigrated to New Jersey from Mexico 20 years ago, took custody of Dulce and helped raise her. The girl’s father has since returned to Mexico, she said.
According to NJ.com, Alavez Perez told authorities that she had driven her kids and another young relative to the playground at Bridgeton City Park a little after 4 p.m. on Sept. 16, after they stopped to get ice cream. When Dulce and her 3-year-old brother went off to play, Alavez Perez stayed behind in the car with the other child.
About 10 minutes later, the boy ran back to the car alone and in tears. Alavez Perez told authorities that he pointed toward some storage buildings near the park. At first, she assumed that her daughter was playing hide-and-seek.
“We thought that she was just hiding, playing around and we went looking for her but we couldn’t find her,” she told CBS Philadelphia.
But after looking around for 10 to 15 minutes, Alavez Perez still couldn’t find Dulce, and called a relative for help. The two combed the park before notifying police shortly before 5 p.m., NJ.com reported. The next day, police issued an Amber Alert after learning that a man had been seen leading the 5-year-old away from the park and into a red van with tinted windows at approximately 4:20 p.m., then driving away.
Authorities told WPVI on Tuesday that they are continuing to search for the suspect, described as a light-skinned and possibly Hispanic man with acne and a slender build, and are operating under the assumption that the 5-year-old is alive. The reward for Dulce’s return has now reached $35,000, and the FBI has added her to the agency’s “Most Wanted” list for kidnapping victims.
Bridgeton, a small city whose economy revolves around agriculture and frozen food processing, has a predominantly Latino population and is home to a significant number of Mexican and Guatemalan immigrants. Both the city’s police chief, Michael Gaimari, and New Jersey’s attorney general, Gurbir Grewal, have raised concerns that some residents who might have valuable information to share have refrained from coming forward because of their immigration status. Those fears may have been compounded by the fact that Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained Alavez Perez’s boyfriend, a Mexican citizen, several days after Dulce disappeared.
The 27-year-old was later released. An ICE spokesman told NBC Philadelphia that the man was “part of an ongoing investigation by local, state and federal law enforcement partners,” but wouldn’t comment on whether there was any connection to Dulce’s disappearance.
Meanwhile, Alavez Perez has faced immense public scrutiny. She told the Philadelphia Inquirer that after not eating for 36 hours following her daughter’s disappearance, she accepted a slice of pizza that someone handed to her, only to be accosted by a stranger who had joined the search effort as a volunteer.
“‘If my daughter was missing, I wouldn’t eat!’ this lady yelled at me,” Alavez Perez said. “Then she started taking a video of me."
After that, Alavez Perez stopped going back to the park. She told NJ.com that she had also taken down her Facebook page after critics began closely scrutinizing her past posts, including an old photo that showed her smoking marijuana. Other online comments targeted her family members, and even accused her mother of prostituting her, she said.
“They’re saying I didn’t love my kids and I just gave my kids away to someone,” Alavez Perez told the outlet.