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A week after dreadlocks controversy, cheers for Buena Regional High School wrestler

The Buena Regional School District held a special meeting Wednesday night to "discuss personnel matters," a week after Andrew Johnson, 16, a junior at the South Jersey school, decided to have his dreadlocks cut to avoid forfeiting a wrestling match.

Steve Martinelli, a Buena Vista township committeeman and former Buena wrestler, speaks at the Buena Regional school board session held to discuss the recent incident in which a Buena High wrestler was compelled to have his dreadlocks cut in order to compete. The emergency meeting was held at the Buena Regional High School Media Center on December 26, 2018.   ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Steve Martinelli, a Buena Vista township committeeman and former Buena wrestler, speaks at the Buena Regional school board session held to discuss the recent incident in which a Buena High wrestler was compelled to have his dreadlocks cut in order to compete. The emergency meeting was held at the Buena Regional High School Media Center on December 26, 2018. ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff PhotographerRead more

There were tears and cheers for Andrew Johnson at a packed emergency school board meeting where the South Jersey wrestler who decided to have his dreadlocks cut to avoid forfeiting his match was lauded for taking “a hit“ for his team.

About 100 people, including civil rights and community activists, packed a hastily scheduled special meeting of the Buena Regional school board to discuss the growing dreadlocks controversy that has made international headlines. The incident has sparked outrage from civil rights activists, elected officials, and celebrities, as well as charges of racism.

The video of Johnson, as he stoically stood on the Buena High gym floor while a trainer cut several inches from his hair, quickly went viral. It stirred a controversy that has prompted an investigation by the state Division on Civil Rights at the request of the state association that oversees high school athletics.

”It broke my heart to watch that young man stand there and be humiliated,” said Rachel Green, civil rights director of Action Together New Jersey, choking back tears. “He never should have been forced to make a decision between letting his coach and his team down and his personal identity.”

Before recessing into executive session ”to discuss personnel matters,” the board heard public comment for about 30 minutes. The board said it would take no action Wednesday and could not identify any employees it discussed in closed session before adjourning the meeting an hour later.

Several people hailed Johnson, and the crowd applauded several times. In an impassioned speech, Steve Martinelli, a varsity wrestler at Buena in the 1960s, blasted Alan Maloney, the referee who refused to allow Johnson to compete, and said the veteran official “does not belong” in the league.

”What happened was a travesty and never should have happened,” said Martinelli, a township committee member in Buena Vista. “The shame in all of that is he was humiliated on the mat, traumatized.“

School Superintendent David Cappuccio Jr. said officials in the Atlantic County district were “deeply troubled by the embarrassment [and] the humiliation that our young student athlete endured.“ The district is conducting an internal investigation, he said.

Cappuccio said the district has notified the New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association that its wrestling team would not compete in any matches officiated by Maloney. The association has suspended Maloney pending the outcome of the state investigation.

Dominic Speziali, an attorney who represents Johnson and his family, urged the board to “refrain from scapegoating” anyone — especially George Maxwell, the Buena wrestling coach, and Denise Fields, the trainer who sheared several inches from Johnson’s hair. He noted that several administrators were in the stands when Johnson’s hair was cut and remained silent.

Johnson‘s parents, who did not attend the board meeting, have expressed support for their son’s coach and trainer.

”The blame here is on the referee,” Speziali told the board. “It’s still not clear to me why that had to happen in that manner to Andrew.”

But Walter Hudson, chairman of the National Awareness Alliance, a civil-rights group based in Salem County, blasted the coaches and the district and charged that they were more concerned about winning.

“I believe that the coaches had an obligation to protect Mr. Johnson’s rights, “ Hudson, the father of two sons, told the board. “No way he should have been degraded like that.”

Atlantic County Freeholder Ernest Corsey said, “Those who need to be held accountable should be held accountable.”

It was unclear what, if any, action the board would take. The superintendent said the meeting was convened for ”sharing legal and personnel information as well as discussing personnel action that has already occurred and that which may be forthcoming.”

A sign outside the school, which is closed for the holiday break, displayed a quote attributed to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “It is always the right time to do the right thing.”

READ MORE: >> South Jersey wrestler was “under duress” when he agreed to have dreadlocks cut, lawyer says

Johnson, who is black, was told moments before his 120-pound bout by Maloney, who is white, that his hair was too long and that he lacked the proper headgear. Faced with forfeiting the match and with 90 seconds to decide, Johnson chose to have a school trainer cut his hair, a decision his attorney has said was made “under duress.”

Maloney, who has been officiating for more than 40 years with a reputation as a stickler for the rules, has not responded to numerous requests seeking comment. Other referees have defended him, saying that Maloney was simply enforcing rules, that Johnson should have been equipped with the proper head covering, and that they would have made the same call.

Several petitions on calling for Maloney’s ouster as a referee have garnered more than 25,000 signatures.

In 2016, Malone was at the center of another controversy when he was confronted by a black referee after allegedly using a racial slur at a social gathering with sports officials. He later apologized and was ordered to attend sensitivity training.

Olivia Caldwell, president of the Mainland Pleasantville chapter of the NAACP, said she believed the incident may have had racial undertones and welcomed the investigations.

”We were shocked and dismayed that something like this would happen in such a public way,” Caldwell said in an interview. “It‘s like disregard for culture.”

Speziali, of Philadelphia, blamed the Buena incident on Maloney’s tardiness. In a statement Monday, he said Maloney arrived late for the match and missed Johnson’s weigh-in, when officials typically inspect wrestlers, checking their hair, skin, and any special equipment such as a hair covering.

When Maloney eventually evaluated Johnson, he did not raise any concerns about the length of Johnson’s hair or say he needed to wear a hair covering, Speziali said. Johnson and his younger brother, Nate, 14, a freshman and also a teammate, were later told that both would need to wear a hair covering or they would be disqualified, he said.

Nate Johnson doesn’t have dreadlocks and it was unknown why Maloney told the teen he needed a hair covering, Speziali said.

A covering must be worn if the wrestler’s hair extends past the earlobe, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. The covering must be attached to the ear guards.

Speziali said that when Andrew Johnson, 16, took to the mat, Maloney rejected his head covering. Johnson, a junior at Buena, had been allowed to wear the same covering in a tournament the previous weekend, and his coaches pleaded with Maloney to permit him to compete.

An older brother, Charles Johnson Jr., 22, said he was in the stands along with his father and grandfather to watch Andrew compete against Oakcrest High School at a home match in Buena when the controversy unfolded. His father said Andrew wore “a cap because his hair was a little too long,” Charles Jr. told WHYY in an interview this week.

“I just felt like it was wrong,” he said in the interview. “He shouldn’t have had to cut his hair or anything just because of a wrestling match.”

At one point, Charles Johnson said, his grandfather was “ready to run on the gym floor” and pull the referee and the trainer who cut his brother’s hair.

Andrew Johnson won his match in overtime, 4-2, and the Buena Chiefs defeated Oakcrest, a conference rival, 41-24.

When Maloney raised Johnson’s arm in victory, Johnson, somewhat bloodied, appeared dejected. His teammates erupted with a cheer. But Charles Jr. said his brother was upset about what happened.

“He was off to the side crying,” Johnson said. “I felt like he was kind of embarrassed that he had to go through that. And after getting his hair cut in front of the whole school, he had to go wrestle his butt off just to win.”

Buena is scheduled to compete in its first match since the incident on Thursday at 9 a.m. against Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington. Johnson will not attend, Speziali said Wednesday.