When Sara Stillitano decided to speak up two years ago, she was just “student S.”
In a legal notice to the school district, she described what she said were years of unwanted backrubs, inappropriate comments and eventually sexual assault from her eighth-grade teacher as he locked her in a classroom, pushed her against a wall and exposed himself. She said she only escaped by stabbing him with a pencil.
When she filed a notice of intent in 2019 to sue the Hopewell Valley School District and Mark Amantia — the Timberlane Middle School teacher she claims assaulted her — her claims became public, but she remained anonymous.
Now she said she wants to be heard.
Stillitano, now 19 and a senior in another high school, filed a civil lawsuit May 9 in Superior Court of Mercer County in which she claims Amantia — who has been with the district for 25 years and is still employed as a technology trainer, according to the district website — is a predator who targeted her and others.
She and other students claim in court documents that he’s been allowed to prey on students for years, as far back as 2005, and has had inappropriate contact with students during class, in the hallways and in the lunchroom, all in full view of other students and faculty.
Her lawsuit includes new allegations that, in the fall of 2016 when she was 13 years old, the teacher had her accompany him to drop off gifts for a charity in Trenton, but drugged her and took her to a rowhome in the city where she was sexually assaulted on a bed by another man while the teacher watched.
She spoke about the allegations to NJ Advance Media in an interview from the kitchen table of her family’s Hopewell home, alongside her lawyer, Brian Schiller. She said in the interview she had repressed the memory of the assault in Trenton and only through therapy was able to piece it together.
“It is not easy to accept and to address disturbing events that we wish were not true. But we cannot be silent and pretend these things did not happen,” she said.
NJ Advance Media generally does not reveal the identities of alleged sexual assault victims, but Stillitano said she wanted to be identified and said her parents said are supportive of her decision to speak out but she asked them not to be present for the interview.
Eric Harrison, the lawyer for both the Hopewell Valley school district and Amantia, adamantly denied Stillitano’s claims against the teacher and the district in a response filed last week in court. Amantia, 57, did not return multiple requests for comment by phone and email, and two cars were in the driveway at his Hopewell home on Saturday but no one answered the door.
“As much as Mark would like to respond to these outlandish allegations in the press, I have told him that he must not do so outside of the legal process,” Harrison wrote to a reporter on Saturday who left a business card at Amantia’s home.
In the legal response, Harrison wrote that the district and law enforcement had investigated the previous claims, and all have concluded without finding wrongdoing or criminal charges.
“The Defendants look forward to cooperating in a full investigation of these new claims, as well as a full investigation through the civil litigation process of all the allegations that Sara and her attorneys have leveled against them over the last five years.”
Stillitano said she spent four years in therapy overcoming the fear, and many levels of shame, like being unable to tell her parents what was happening until a few years later.
She said she secretly slept on a couch in her home for over two years, terrified of being in a bed.
She later switched high schools, repeated a year, and is now headed to college in the fall. Her thoughts are now with others who may have been victimized, or who are suffering in silence like she was, she said.
Her lawsuit includes claims from two former students, who are identified in court documents, who said they had been inappropriately touched by Amantia in school as far back as 17 years ago, and a third who witnessed it on others.
Stillitano said she reported Amantia four times to school officials, three before the alleged assault in Trenton, and no substantive action was taken to keep Amantia away from her or other students, according to the lawsuit.
In the lawsuit, and in her interview with NJ Advance Media, Stillitano describes Amantia first targeting her in seventh grade on the middle school lacrosse team. Amantia was the middle school athletics director, and he was constantly hanging around her and making her feel uncomfortable, she said in the lawsuit.
She was assigned his social studies class the next year and within weeks he was singling her out, first with gushing comments about her appearance, and then with back rubs in class in front of other students, she claims. It happened repeatedly and in the presence of other students and adults, the lawsuit said.
It progressed to Amantia pressing his crotch against her as he stood and she sat, and tugged at her bra straps when they peeked from her shirt, she said in the interview from her home.
He was wildly touchy with other girls too, but he focused on Stillitano, she said. He seemed to always be able to catch her in hallways alone, and also visited her in the lunchroom where she claimed in the lawsuit he would touch her shoulders.
At the start of her eighth-grade year in 2016 — before the Trenton incident — she said she and another student who had similar unwanted experiences from Amantia reported him to a guidance counselor. She would report Amantia to school officials three more times and didn’t inform her parents about it until the final time a few years later, her lawsuit said.
Each complaint, Stillitano said, led to a two-week refrain from Amantia’s attention and inappropriate touching, but it would eventually start up again.
At the end of her eighth-grade year in 2017, she said, Amantia told her he wanted to “keep tabs on her” and asked her to participate on the township’s Youth Advisory Committee, which he chaired at the time. (He was removed from his position in 2019, the town says.)
But an incident her sophomore year, when Amantia “aggressively” tried to give her a ride home from a meeting, caused her to “experience unwanted memories” from what happened in middle school, she said in the lawsuit. She began to tell her parents, and together they reported to school and law enforcement how Amantia had touched her repeatedly in school and described the classroom incident.
The Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office, according to Schiller, deemed Stillitano credible in her version of the classroom incident but no charges were filed.
In the suit, and to NJ Advance Media, Stillitano described what she said happened in more detail. She said Amantia asked her to help him with a task, then made up a ruse about forgetting his keys in his classroom. They walked in and Amantia locked the door and pulled down the shade on the door’s window.
He pinned her against a wall and unzipped his pants, exposing himself, Stillitano claims. She said she can still hear the clank of his belt buckle, and as he pulled at her leggings, she went into “panic mode” and swung at him with the pencil in her hand, then fled.
Stillitano and Schiller say she did not immediately report it due to fear and confusion. She said it was that same fear and self-blame that also kept her from reporting what she said happened to her in Trenton the fall before the classroom attack.
Amantia had asked her to accompany him from Hopewell to Trenton to drop off holiday gifts collected for a charity, she said in the lawsuit. He gave an increasingly anxious 13-year-old Stillitano — who asked to be taken back to the school — a water bottle, and as she sipped from it, he drove around the city pointing out historic landmarks, she said.
Then they made another stop at a rowhouse on Dye Street in the city.
Stillitano recalled being dizzy and confused as she was assisted to the second floor. She remembers seeing a bed; it had a metal headboard. A small camera sat on a tripod at the foot of the bed. Two men she had never seen before were there, and she claims in her lawsuit that one of them sexually assaulted her while Amantia and the other man watched.
”I was paralyzed,” Stillitano recalled of the assault, “and nobody knew where I was.”
Harrison, the lawyer for the district, said upon learning of the new allegation in Stillitano’s suit, the district notified state and Mercer County law enforcement authorities as required.
The Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office said it does not comment on pending civil matters.
Feeling unsupported and unsafe in the Hopewell Valley school system, Stillitano transferred to another school district in 2019, after her sophomore year, according to the suit. That fall, Stillitano anonymously filed a notice of her intent to sue the district, which included allegations of the classroom assault, but not the Trenton incident.
The Hopewell Valley school board held a special public meeting about the incident in November 2019, where the board revealed Amantia had been placed on administrative leave from February to March 2019 but returned to the district in a new position after a criminal investigation ended without charges.
Two other students who had similar experiences with Amantia, in years ranging from 2005 to 2017, have since spoken up, and one wrote the district an email after Stillitano’s claims were made public in 2019. A third witnessed Amantia’s alleged actions and she provided a statement for Stillitano’s suit. The mother of one of those students also said in the lawsuit she reported Amantia to the principal at the time.
The student who emailed the district in 2019 described the confusing emotions she’d been dealing with due to an authority figure, a “father figure,” touching her in a way she only realized as an adult was inappropriate. “[It] will continue for many years after if we do not protect the community’s young women,” the woman wrote in the email.
Stillitano and Schiller said the school district did not protect Stillitano and continually failed to act to protect others by allowing him to still be employed.
“Many levels of various institutions have failed students for decades when it comes to sexual abuse in Hopewell Valley School District. I hope to shine a light on the injustices that have occurred and the far-reaching consequences that those injustices have had on children and their families over the years,” Stillitano said in an email to NJ Advance Media.
“It is hard enough for a child to come forward about a traumatic experience. It only makes it worse when that child feels like their experiences are not being taken seriously,” she went on. “By coming forward, I am asking you to look at your children, your friends, your students, and to listen to them and to believe them,” she said, “so they can come out the other side.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported Amantia’s status with the Youth Advisory Committee. The story been updated to correct this information.
Reporter Suzette Parmley at [email protected] contributed to this report.
Thank you for relying on us to provide the local news you can trust. Please consider supporting NJ.com with a voluntary subscription.
Kevin Shea may be reached at [email protected].