In a move to send a strong message about intolerance, the Haddonfield School District on Friday canceled the remainder of its high school boys' lacrosse season after a team member was accused of using a racial slur against a black female track athlete from another school.
"There is no room for hate of any kind at Haddonfield schools and it will not be tolerated," interim Superintendent David T. Lindenmuth said in a statement Friday. "It is not who we are and it does not represent our student body."
The incident occurred May 1 during a girls' track meet at Haddonfield involving teams from Sterling High School in Somerdale, Haddon Heights High School, and Haddonfield, said Lloyd D. Henderson, president of the Camden County East Branch of the NAACP.
The black athlete, from Sterling, was on the track when five to seven white Haddonfield boys' lacrosse players walked by her, said Cydney Thomas, a Haddon Heights track team member who is black. One told the Sterling athlete "to move, 'N-word,'" Thomas said. The lacrosse team was practicing on a field surrounded by the track.
"It upset me, along with girls from the other teams," said Thomas, 16, who was standing nearby after completing her part in the competition. "I was in shock."
It is believed to be the first time that a school in New Jersey 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 New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association.
"We applaud the swift, decisive action taken by Haddonfield Public Schools," said Larry White, the association's executive director.
James Dizzley, the father of the girl who was called the N-word, said he saw the encounter from the stadium stands. He knew immediately that something was wrong with his daughter, but waited until after the meet to approach the track.
"That's a shame it had to come down to that. I feel bad for the honest players that had nothing to do with the situation," he said in a text message.
Dizzley said his daughter could not identify who made the remark because the lacrosse players were wearing helmets. She was stretching to prepare for her race and had her head down, he said.
"It definitely bothered her," Dizzley said. "She shouldn't have to go through that."
He asked that his daughter's name not be used to protect her privacy.
Haddonfield had suspended practice for the lacrosse team for two days last week, but resumed practice May 4. The team played Tuesday at home in what would turn out to be the final game of the season, a 20-6 victory against Cherry Hill East. Haddonfield was scheduled to complete its regular season with games against Cherry Hill East on Saturday and West Deptford on Monday. Haddonfield would have started the NJSIAA tournament on Wednesday, likely as the No. 7 seed in South Jersey Group 1. They ended the season 8-0 in their division, 9-5 overall.
Lindenmuth said the district conducted an internal investigation and "some issues were discovered that are completely unacceptable for this community." The investigation corroborated the account by the Sterling student and others who heard it, he said.
"We were not able to identify the person," Lindenmuth said. "Since we could not pinpoint one, we had to look at the whole team."
Henderson applauded the decision.
"I am now convinced that Haddonfield School District is serious about its position against racial hatred expressed in any form," Henderson said. "What a powerful message to the student body that this will not be tolerated."
The allegation put a cloud over one of South Jersey's most elite school districts, known for its academic and athletic prowess. A complaint filed with the 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 girl, who was left in tears from the encounter, reported the incident to her coach, according to Henderson. Joe Cramp, the Haddon Heights athletic director, said several girls from his team heard the slur and immediately notified their coach. The Haddonfield lacrosse coach also was notified about the incident, Henderson said.
Thomas said she notified an assistant Haddonfield lacrosse coach. He was surrounded by the team, who erupted with laughter, she said. "I didn't think it was funny at all."
The Haddonfield boys' lacrosse team (white uniform) played Cherry Hill East Tuesday. Haddonfield won, 20-6.
Haddonfield boys' lacrosse coach Damon Legato and athletic director Lefty Banos did not respond to messages seeking comment.
The population at Haddonfield Memorial High School, which enrolls about 850 students in grades 9-12, is 90 percent white, 4.2 percent Asian, 2.2 percent Hispanic, 1.5 percent black, and 1.9 percent multiracial.
Sterling, in its complaint, cited another incident this school year, which allegedly occurred Dec. 19 following a girls' basketball game with Haddonfield. A white Haddonfield assistant coach gave high-fives to the opposing team's white players, who were lined up to congratulate the other team, but skipped two black players, the complaint alleges.
In 2013, the sports association was among the first in the country to adopt bias language rules for high school sports that banned trash-talking. The crackdown prohibits any verbal, written or physical conduct related to race, religion, ethnicity, gender, disability, or sexual orientation and could be grounds for disqualifying an athlete from competing.
Lindenmuth is the first black superintendent in Haddonfield's history. He was named in January for a six-month stint until the district of about 2,500 students could hire a permanent administrator.
"This type of incident is wrong, no matter what," said Lindenmuth, who also served as the first black freeholder in Salem County. "It crosses all boundaries. I don't think it would change if I were white, Hispanic, or Asian."