At a packed school board meeting Thursday night, supporters of the Haddonfield High School boys' lacrosse team broke their silence about a racial incident involving a player, blasting school officials for canceling the season and accusing them of mishandling the investigation.
Tom Gramigna, a member of the lacrosse booster club, said the district took an "easy path" in a rush to judgment and abruptly halted the team's season. Team members were encouraged to come forward and have been "unfairly branded as racists," he said.
"They're being accosted as bigots," Gramigna said.
About 100 people attended the meeting, the first since Haddonfield was thrust into a national spotlight after interim Superintendent David T. Lindenmuth canceled the remainder of the lacrosse season on May 11, following an internal investigation that concluded that a member of the lacrosse team has used a slur against a student from another school — but could not identify the team member.
Lacrosse coach Damon Legato, in his first public comments since the May 1 incident sparked the controversy at the South Jersey school, said athletic officials took the matter seriously and immediately began investigating when the racial slur was reported. Their silence, until now, was wrongly viewed as "a sign of guilt," he said.
"This has been a difficult situation for everyone involved," Legato said.
Board President Adam Sangillo, in an attempt to counter charges that the players were denied due process and that school officials had rushed to judgment, opened the meeting by spelling out for the first time how the investigation was conducted. The board received a report on the investigation by the district's harassment, intimidation and bullying official but took no action on it, he said.
A black female athlete from Sterling High School said she was stretching on the Haddonfield track when several players on the lacrosse team walked by and one of them said: "Move, 'N-word,' " according to a police report. She said she could not identify who said it because the players were wearing helmets.
Every member of the team, about 40 players, was questioned, along with the coaching staff, Sangillo said. No one admitted making the slur, he said.
"We believe that one child was at the heart of this," Sangillo told the gathering.
But several people who spoke during the meeting, questioned whether a racial slur had indeed been used, suggesting that the Sterling athlete may have misheard or misunderstood a remark.
Jessica Blake, whose son is captain of the lacrosse team, said he told her, "Mom, I don't think anybody said it."
None of the lacrosse players addressed the board during the public comment.
"Did anybody ever think that it wasn't said?" asked Blake. "No names came up. It's not about race. It's about the decision you made and how you handled it. The boys are owed a big apology for the way it was handled."
Carey Savage, vice president of the Camden County East Chapter of the NAACP, urged the crowd to remember the black athlete who was left in tears by the encounter.
"Something happened. A tragedy was done," Savage said. "You can't sit her and tell me no one on that team knows what happened."
Sangillo said Haddonfield school officials interviewed at least three students from Sterling and Haddon Heights who corroborated the account. The incident occurred at Haddonfield during a girls' track meet with Haddonfield, Haddon Heights, and Sterling High Schools.
School officials had set a deadline for someone to identify the student who was responsible and later extended it, students said. Unable to pinpoint one person, the district "had to look at the whole team," the superintendent said.
A complaint filed with the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association by Sterling was referred to the state Attorney General's Office for review by the Division on Civil Rights as a bias incident. The case was also reported to Haddonfield police as a bias incident.
Some students, former coaches and parents say the racial slur hurled by the lacrosse player was part of a disturbing pattern at Haddonfield, ranked as one of the top schools in the country for academics and athletics. Civil rights leaders say the school has a culture of racism.
"We have heard from a history of this type of conduct in the past," said NAACP President Lloyd D. Henderson. "That behavior whether you want to believe it, has been allowed to fester for years."
Lindenmuth, the first black schools chief in Haddonfield, said the district would conduct diversity training for students and staff. Additional procedures and requirements are planned for all sports teams, he said.
The school's population is 90 percent white, 4.2 percent Asian, 2.2 percent Hispanic, 1.5 percent black, and 1.9 percent multiracial.
The season's cancellation is believed to be the first time that a New Jersey school has canceled a sports season in progress since 2014, when the Sayreville football program was shut down by incidents of bullying, harassment, and intimidation, according to the state high school athletic association.