South Orange – Maplewood BOE Votes to Reappoint Baseball Coaches

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Board of Education meeting Feb. 22, 2016

Board of Education meeting Feb. 22, 2016


South Orange – Maplewood Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker opened the public comment period of Monday’s meeting by noting that the issues on the agenda “stir deep emotion.” That statement spoke to deep divisions among the public and the board regarding the reappointment of four Columbia High School baseball coaches.

In an emotionally fraught and divided vote following impassioned testimony from current and former players and parents, the board reappointed all four coaches, voting 6-3 to reappoint Varsity Head Coach Joseph Fischetti and Asst. Coach Matthew Becht, with Baker, Johanna Wright and Chris Sabin dissenting. (JV Asst Coach Sam Maietta was unanimously rehired, while Freshman Coach Stephen Campos was reappointed 5-4, with Madhu Pai, Annemarie Maini, Baker and Maureen Jones dissenting).

Meanwhile, Supt. Dr. John Ramos announced that the district was hiring an independent investigator to look into open-ended HIB violations in the baseball program, and that his recommendation for rehiring the coaches was “qualified” depending on the investigator’s findings, which would be completed within the next month. “Should HIB violations be found the district will take appropriate action.”

Asked later to elaborate, Ramos told The Village Green the investigator would work approximately 40 hours at a capped maximum cost of $5,000. He said he could not detail what action the district might take because of privacy issues.

The coaches, particularly Fischetti and Becht, have been at the center of a firestorm over the last couple of years, as several parents and students stepped forward to allege the coaches had bullied and harassed them. Recently, a former CHS baseball player filed suit against the South Orange-Maplewood School District, the coaches and several administrators alleging 17 counts of bullying and harassment.

Some board members seemed to visibly struggle with their decisions. Pai gave a lengthy pause and said, “Sorry, this is not easy” before casting her vote in favor of Fischetti’s rehiring. New board member Annemarie Maini seemed pained and hesitant before she too voted in favor.

Pai later said the vote was not a win for anyone.

Board of Education meeting February 22, 2016

Board of Education meeting February 22, 2016

As in past meetings, many current and former players and parents spoke in support of the coaches, while two parents urged the board not to rehire the men in light of ten confirmed cases of HIB on the baseball team. Scores of CHS baseball players packed the audience, wearing black T-shirts emblazoned with “Team Player” on the back.

A former player described how Fischetti stood by him and offered support after he was seriously injured in a game and had to take a leave. “With the help of all four of the coaches I was able to get my confidence back.”

The coaches support the players “through and through, on and off the field,” said a current team member. “They wanted nothing but success for my future.” He continued, “They are shaping the lives of young adults and are trying to find success for each and every person on this team.”

Another player called the coaches “tremendous mentors” who taught players “accountability, discipline and respect.”

Amy Singer, secretary to Athletic Director Larry Busichio, read a letter she had sent to Dr. Ramos testifying to her boss’s integrity and urging the board to trust his judgment. In scathing language, Singer said she was “witness to the charades that have gone on this past year with baseball” and was on the receiving end of “tirades” from an angry parent and player who later apologized to her.

Randy Nathan, who has vociferously criticized the district’s handling of the HIB incidents, said “It’s not okay that the…Baseball Program as a whole has been proven to have had many instances of [bullying] throughout the season for certain players,” He continued, “Why would the administration put before you a coach that was found to have harassed, intimidated and bullied student athletes?”

“What if it was your kid?” asked Nathan. “This a community – if even one of our boys is harmed it should pain us all.”

“Many people have or will stand up tonight and tell us about the wonderful experiences they have had with these coaches,” said Adam Joseph, father of a former player who he says was not bullied. “I am delighted for them but I also think these testimonials are completely irrelevant in the face of the overwhelming evidence about these coaches’ outrageous harassment of other children.”

He deplored those questioning the motives of players and families who came forward with bullying accusations. “This response puzzles and disgusts me,” he said.

As he left the meeting, Joseph told the board members they should be “ashamed,” prompting one man in the audience to wave his hand dismissively at Joseph and tell him, “Bye-bye.” That prompted a warning from President Baker for audience members to maintain civility.

Joseph, visibly shaken after his speech, told Village Green that if “even one-tenth” of similar bullying had gone on in the classroom, it would not be tolerated. “But somehow it’s allowed on the playing field.”

The board also voted to pass several new and revised policies concerning the sports program, including appropriate conduct for coaches, parents and staff.

The policies can be found as attachments at the end of the board meeting agenda.

District counsel Phil Stern explained that the new policy: 2431.1 Athletic Department and Coaches is meant to “put the district and all athletic department staff…on notice” that they must exemplify the highest standards of conduct.

Calling the policies an “important step forward,” Pai said, “These have got to be addressed in a timely fashion…I just want to stress the urgency of making sure that these policies are not only adhered to but that action steps are taken very quickly.” She singled out Policy 9191, which governs the conduct of Booster Clubs.

Baker agreed, saying that all coaches and staff should be trained in the new policies by the fall and that by moving quickly on the policies, the board can avoid a repeat of what happened tonight.

Board member Johanna Wright told Village Green after the vote that she voted against Fischetti and Becht’s reappointments because “the jury is still out.” She said the board has heard allegations from other parents throughout the district of bullying against their children and that those children were still “hurting and in pain.”

“This is a no-win situation for everyone involved,” said Wright. “I had to vote my conscience.” She continued, “Can we recognize bullying in this district?”




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