Haddonfield school leader at center of controversy over boys' lacrosse racial incident steps down

Interim Haddonfield schools chief David T. Lindenmuth, who canceled the high school boys’ lacrosse season after a player used a racial slur, is stepping down effective immediately, officials said Friday.

Camera icon DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
Interim superintendent David T. Lindenmuth is stepping down, effective immediately, due to a family medical emergency, the district said Friday.

School Board President Adam Sangillo said Lindenmuth resigned because of a family medical emergency. His $650-a-day contract was to run through June 30.

Sangillo said the departure, announced Friday to staff and parents, was unrelated to the incident involving the lacrosse team, which made national headlines. Lindenmuth announced on May 11 that he had suspended the team’s season after an internal investigation concluded that a Haddonfield Memorial High student used the slur against a black female athlete from another school but could not identify the student. The team had been expected to be a contender for a state championship. Lindenmuth said his action was warranted because of the conduct.

“He was a good leader. He set some good examples when we needed leadership,” Sangillo said.

Lindenmuth did not respond to a message seeking comment.

Sangillo said the newly hired superintendent, Larry Mussoline, will begin his duties Monday. The board approved a five-year contract with Mussoline in March with a $174,689-a-year salary. A former schools chief in Downingtown, he had been scheduled to begin in Haddonfield July 1.

At a Haddonfield school board meeting last week, some boys’ lacrosse team supporters criticized Lindenmuth’s decision to cancel the season after the incident, which occurred during a girls’ track meet at Haddonfield involving teams from Haddonfield, Sterling High School in Somerdale, and Haddon Heights High School. Others have applauded the decision, saying they believe that the lacrosse players should have been able to identify the team member who made the remark.

The female athlete, from Sterling, was on the track stretching when from five to seven white Haddonfield lacrosse players walked by her, and one told her to “Move, ‘N-word,'” according to a police report. The slur was heard by at least three athletes from other schools. Haddonfield’s internal investigation said statements from witnesses from Haddon Heights corroborated her account.

The girl said she was unable to identify the person who made the slur because the players were wearing helmets. She was left in tears from the encounter and reported the incident to her coach. Sterling students also notified their coach and Haddonfield boys’ lacrosse coach Damon Legato.

Camera icon CHARLES FOX
Haddonfield High School boys’ lacrosse coach Damon Legato addresses the school board.

Lindenmuth initially canceled practice for two days pending investigation. The players were told to speak up or else.

The school interviewed all 40 members of the lacrosse team, all of whom are white, and also athletic officials, but could not pinpoint the remark, Sangillo said at the board meeting last week. The district confirmed that a slur was used and reported the incident to the state under a law that requires notification when an incident deemed harassment, bullying or intimidation occurs.

“There is no room for hate of any kind at Haddonfield schools and it will not be tolerated,”  Lindenmuth said in a statement announcing the decision. “It is not who we are and it does not represent our student body.”

It is believed to be the first time that a school in New Jersey had canceled a sports season in progress since 2014, when the Sayreville football program was shut down over incidents of bullying, harassment, and intimidation, according to the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association.

A complaint Sterling filed with the athletic association was referred to the state Attorney General’s Office for review by the Division on Civil Rights as a bias incident. Civil rights officials have said the incident is part of a disturbing culture in Haddonfield, a predominantly white borough of nearly 12,000 residents.

Lindenmuth was the first black superintendent in Haddonfield history. He was named in January for a six-month stint until the district of about 2,500 students could hire a permanent administrator. He previously was a superintendent in Clayton, Palmyra, and Oldmans Township, Salem County, where he was also the first black county freeholder.

The board hired Lindenmuth after Richard Perry stepped down in February because of a family matter. In July 2017, the board voted not to renew Perry’s contract after seven years in the position, and he was to retire in June 2018.

In the statement Friday, Sangillo acknowledged the controversy. The district held diversity training last week at the high school conducted by the NAACP and has said that more is planned.

“It’s clear to me and the board that residents are deeply concerned about the events of the past month, and many are seeking the opportunity to discuss the current realities of race relations locally and nationally,” Sangillo said. The new superintendent is eager to begin “tackling Haddonfield’s pressing issues,” he said.

>>READ MORE: Beyond boys’ lacrosse, on Haddonfield sports teams, racial slurs ‘just happened all the time,’ parents say