The South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education meeting in May was marked once again by emotional testimony from several parents who alleged their children had been subject to bullying by administrators and coaches in the district.
Some parents spoke about incidents involving the Columbia High School Varsity Head Baseball Coach Joseph Fischetti, who was under investigation earlier this year in response to parent allegations of misbehavior. Fischetti was reappointed for the Spring 2015 season, to a mixed response from parents.
As The Village Green reported earlier, one parent told the story of her four-year-old daughter, who has special needs, being harassed by an aide and sent home in a restraint.
In addition, the parent of a South Orange Middle School student claimed her daughter has been the victim of repeated harassment by the school’s administration.
The comments were made before and after the district’s in-house counsel and Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying (HIB) coordinator Philip Stern presented a report on HIB in the district. (The report can be found attached below as a PDF document.) Columbia High School Principal Elizabeth Aaron and Larry Busichio, Director of Student Activities & Athletics, also spoke, assuring parents they were committed to supporting the district’s students.
Stern said while he was obligated to uphold confidentiality, “there is a resoultion to each and every one of the cases that you heard and we will find that resolution as quickly as possible…That is our commitment.”
Aaron emphasized that she and Busichio are working with Stern to make sure all regulations and policies are adhered to regarding student athletics, and that they frequently discuss and monitor coach job performance.
“I am completely and totally committed…to making sure that every student, every athlete, every coach, every program is one in which students are healthy and well and supported and engaged and growing and doing their best,” said Aaron.
“I want all our athletes to have the best athletic experience they could have here,” said Busichio. In three years, CHS has made multiple coaching changes, he said, and there has been “a sea change in how we do business in athletics.” He said the district did not tolerate ethnic, racial or homophobic slurs from coaches or students.
“To be very clear, on my watch any student who has a concern or a complaint about any adult…need not fear retribution of any kind,” Busichio said, and he is “sincerely sorry” for any pain any athlete has experienced.
He noted that last year the district won the Shop Rite Cup, an award based on championships won but also on sportsmanship, and that in the past two years, no coaches or players have been disqualified for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Stern commended the vigilance of parents who have come forward, and reiterated the department’s commitment to properly supporting and training staff to ensure they understand the rules.
Mary Jo DeFranco, who said her son had been “wronged” by the baseball coaches, asked why they had not been removed from their jobs. “The zero tolerance policy obviously does not apply to them.” DeFranco said she was “ignored” by Aaron and Busichio, as well as by the Board of Education and had received no apology for an incident toward her son she alleged took place in April.
“Here I am in public airing your dirty laundry,” DeFranco told the board.
One parent, Randy Nathan, who did not speak at the May meeting but has been vocal at previous meetings, lodged a HIB complaint with the district in April alleging his son had been bullied and harassed by the baseball coaches. Acting Supt. James Memoli initially sent Nathan a letter stating that the district found no evidence to substantiate his claims. However, on April 27, Memoli sent another letter stating that he had since “been made aware that though your efforts, we are now much more knowledgeable about improvements that are needed in our baseball program, as well as in all extra-curricular services.”
Nathan’s allegations are currently under investigation by Joseph DiVincenzo, Jr., the DOE’s education program development specialist for Essex County.
Nathan’s son quit the team in April, noting in a letter he sent to the CHS baseball staff: “I dread practice, I dread games and it’s not worth playing for someone who I no longer respect. I did not do anything to deserve being treated this way, especially by adults who have the experience to know better.”
Charles Nolet, a baseball team parent, spoke in support of the coaches, and decried parents who use HIB “inappropriately.” Bill Krais, who spoke in favor of the coaches at the February board meeting, said some parents have “transparent agendas and self-serving motives” and mistake their children’s lack of playing time as bullying.
“Lets stop tearing down our coaches with threats of retribution hanging over their heads,” said Krais, who is president of the CHS Baseball Boosters.
Board member Madhu Pai asked Busichio for more details on how the district ensures students feel comfortable and empowered. He said coaches are told what is expected of them in pre-season training and that his “door is always open.”
He said that just because a player is benched it is not necessarily punitive and that “no coach intentionally sits a player” because she or he doesn’t like what a parent is saying.
“I do apprecate your remarks beginning to own the problem,” board member Elizabeth Baker told Busichio. However, “whether or not something is HIB should not be the only criteria for what is right and appropriate.” She asked that he return to continue these discussions.
Asked for comment on the baseball situation this week, a spokeswoman said the district could not discuss personnel matters.
In another incident, the mother of a SOMS 6th grader alleged her daughter had been subjected to ongoing harassment by school administrators. Acknowledging her daughter was “not an angel,” the mother said the situation had become so bad that the girl was suffering from mood swings, couldn’t sleep and didn’t want to go to school.
She has filed a HIB complaint, had spoken to Stern (whom she described as “accommodating”) and was considering filing a police report.
“She’s 12 years old and I don’t feel like she should have to go through this.”
Board member Stephanie Lawson-Muhummad asked Stern how the district handles accusations of sexual harassment, particularly student-on-student. In previous board meetings, some parents had said their daughters were reportedly being sexually harassed by other students at Maplewood Middle School.
Stern acknowledged the frustration of parents who want to know the consequences of such incidents. However, he said there was strict legal confidentiality rules, and also that the district’s zero tolerance policy did not mean that students found guilty of bullying should be “shamed” or excluded, but rather taught how to behave properly within the school community.
Lawson-Muhammad cautioned that the victims should not be left feeling vulnerable and unsafe. “The conversations I had this weekend were quite concerning. The feedback was that the communication to the school community has not expressed that ‘zero tolerance’ and that women’s bodies should be respected.”
“We have to ensure our young girls feel safe…,” she said. “There’s no compromise about safety,” Stern agreed.
Board member Johanna Wright accused the district of doing a poor job of recognizing bullying and of reaching out to parents. Referring to the incident with the four-year-old intimidated by a school aide, she said, “Words are damaging to children…. It’s horrid. Everyone here should be incensed and upset.”
“Nobody is talking about protecting children. We’re only taking about protecting adults.” Wright continued, “It is happening in this district, it is alive and well [and] we need to kill it…. It’s unconscionable. We should be ashamed.”
Student representative Maggie Kritzberg said she was concerned about students who were “vulnerable” and wondered whether administrators and guidance counselors were actively reaching out to students who feel victimized.
“When victims or parents come forward, whether it’s proven or not, the district should take it seriously,” said Kritzberg.