On June 3, a third grader at William P. Tatem Elementary School in Collingswood drew a zombie holding a gun. The 9-year-old was sent home with a "Think Sheet" - a routine form issued for student misbehavior - and had a lengthy discussion with his parents, who explained that his drawing had been inappropriate for school.
When he went to school Monday morning, the boy was called to the principal's office, where Officer Jacob Millevoi of the Collingswood police talked to him about what he'd done, according to police reports. The boy left the encounter shaken.
"He said, 'Dad, they kept asking me if I was harassing [a friend],' " the boy's father, Michael Pease, recalled. "And he said, 'I told them no. I don't even know what that means, Dad.' "
Ten days later, the third grader spoke with Millevoi again, after another classmate allegedly said that the brownies being eaten at a class party were "made out of burnt black people," according to police reports. When the boy came home that night, he was even more upset.
" 'Dad, I didn't do anything, I just happened to be there this time,' " Pease recalled his son saying.
Pease's son was one of dozens of Collingswood children who were questioned by police during the last three weeks of the last school year, when the district reported nearly every incident of student misbehavior to law enforcement. That policy, since reversed, was adopted after what has been described as a "misunderstanding" at a May 25 meeting between officials from the district and the Camden County Prosecutor's Office.
The fallout from that meeting resulted in weeks of police calls, with students as young as 7 questioned, often over minor offenses. Officials sent out conflicting statements before agreeing at what School Board President David Routzahn called a "bloody" five-hour meeting July 5 to accept joint blame.
Correspondence among the Prosecutor's Office, the Police Department, and the school district from May to July, recently obtained by the Inquirer through Open Public Records Act requests, reveals that the policy was exacerbated by communications issues on all sides, as well as a focus on public perception. The controversy, which started with a routine meeting to discuss best practices, sparked local outrage and national debate.
At stake now are public trust, as parents prepare to send their children back to school Sept. 6, and, potentially, the jobs of several officials in the district, which has nearly 2,000 students.
On May 18, Police Chief Kevin Carey emailed Assistant Prosecutor Angela Seixas, copying Superintendent Scott Oswald and Collingswood High School principal Matt Genna.
"Would it be possible to meet next week to go over the notifications to the PD on incidents happening at the school?" he asked. There had been "a few incidents" that he wanted to discuss "so we don't run into major issues in the future."
A week after Carey's email, the chief, the superintendent, Genna, Mayor James Maley, a school district attorney, Seixas, and two other members of the county Special Prosecutions Unit gathered at the Collingswood Senior Community Center.
At that meeting, the prosecutors mentioned but did not show a PowerPoint presentation on police reporting standards that the Prosecutor's Office used at an annual training session for schools in the fall of 2015. A law enforcement source said the representatives were prepared to use the presentation but decided to give the training orally.
Asked whether using the presentation would have prevented confusion, a Prosecutor's Office spokesman said officials "didn't need to see it." But he said prosecutors had used the presentation just a month before, at a larger training session with people in the Black Horse Pike Regional School District.
On May 26, Genna asked that the Prosecutor's Office send him a copy of the PowerPoint presentation. He did not receive one.
Oswald informed school administrators and consulted with Carey, but did not notify the school board about the new procedure until June 7, by which time police had been called to schools 14 times, records show.
In the June 7 message, Oswald expressed frustration that "the prosecutor's office has made it crystal clear that their job is more important than our job and we are to back off."
"Eight more school days," he said in concluding his email.
The board's reaction was not positive. Board member Rob Lewandowski, for one, was suspicious of the school leaders' motives.
"Between you and me, I get the 'we will follow their directive to the T so that they can see how stupid it is' strategy, but I think it has come at a cost to the district's credibility," he emailed Routzahn and Oswald on June 24.
Lewandowski said this week that that message was "rash" and no longer represents his stance. But many borough parents have expressed similar opinions.
In his June 24 email, Lewandowski also suggested that the district could have refused to follow the new directive, seeking legal protection - another grievance parents have raised. Glen Savits, a legal expert on employment discrimination, said in an interview last month that several whistle-blower statutes would likely have protected the district from retaliation for refusing to execute policies that educators believed violated standing agreements.
But Oswald said he was hesitant to push back against Seixas, who oversees prosecution for official misconduct in the county and has more expertise on the policies than he does.
There had been eight more incidents by June 17, the last day of school, when Oswald emailed Seixas for the first time. By then, Oswald had already received complaints from parents who he said in an email to school officials "don't understand that this is not our call."
He and Seixas spoke at least once on the phone regarding the June 7 incident, records indicate, but Oswald said he never reached her about the policy, though he said he had tried. He said he called her at least five times in the intervening weeks. The Prosecutor's Office said Seixas called Oswald three times.
"What we are doing right now is not working for us," Oswald told Seixas in the June 17 email. "We should be working on the same team."
Seixas, who was out of the office from June 18 to 28, did not respond to that message because she "did not feel there was an urgency," as school was out, according to a spokesman.
It would be 10 more days until the district formally notified parents, in June 27 public letters from Carey and Routzahn.
Throughout that time, emails show the district feeling animosity toward the Prosecutor's Office, as Facebook debates among parents raged against both agencies.
"This board should show no [interest] in helping the CCPO save face while leaving the school district holding the bag," Oswald emailed the school board June 28. "At the end of this nightmare, the CCPO needs to take ownership for its overreach AND make a statement that the school did not fail to report an incident. I predict neither will happen because they are content making us the scapegoat."
Even as tempers in the borough begin to cool, some parents favor removing Oswald. Routzahn said the board has not discussed firing Oswald and does not plan to.
In several emails, Oswald reminded other officials that "our responsibility is to the children of Collingswood."
Routzahn said the school board will soon discuss the role of the legal counsel who attended the May 25 meeting, whom some parents have blamed for not stopping institution of the policy. The school board's next meeting is Aug. 29.