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How a South Jersey district struggled when a wrestler had to forfeit his dreadlocks or his match

How did the Buena School District handle the fallout when wrestler Andrew Johnson cut his dreadlocks to avoid forfeiting a match? Hundreds of pages of documents obtained by the Inquirer show the efforts to contain the firestorm.

Buena Regional High School wrestler Andrew Johnson gets his hair cut minutes before his match in December.
Buena Regional High School wrestler Andrew Johnson gets his hair cut minutes before his match in December.Read moreMichael Frankel / SNJTODAY.COM via AP, File

Buena Regional High School wrestler Andrew Johnson had 90 seconds to decide: Forfeit your match or cut your dreadlocks. His response to his coach was immediate: “I’m going to cry, but cut it.”

Minutes before, his coach, George Maxwell, had pleaded with referee Alan Maloney to allow Johnson, 16, to compete with a hair covering used in a tournament the previous week. But the referee refused, so the coach asked what his options were.

Maloney responded that Johnson “couldn’t wrestle with the dreadlocks or without the sanctioned cover,” according to a statement by Maxwell.

“Then I heard Drew say, ‘Cut it.’ ”

The account was detailed in documents obtained by The Inquirer from the South Jersey school district through New Jersey’s Open Public Records Act. The hundreds of pages of documents provide an inside look at how the district struggled to manage the haircutting controversy, which made international headlines after a video of the Dec. 19, 2018, incident went viral and prompted a state probe.

The files show the fiery backlash for a district in crisis mode, such as how to handle mail from Johnson’s supporters and how to respond to media interviews, and questions by top school officials about whether the Buena coaches acted appropriately. As the public debate ensued, the district began investigating and seeking answers about whether the incident was racially motivated. Maloney is white and Johnson is black.

On that December evening, Johnson looked dejected as he stood on a mat as spectators, including his family, watched a Buena trainer cut several inches from his brown locks. He went on to win his 120-pound match in overtime, 4-2. Since then, he has not publicly discussed the controversy.

In the aftermath, the state Division on Civil Rights and the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association launched investigations. The outcomes of both probes are pending, as is the fate of Maloney, who was sidelined by the association from officiating any meets pending the results.

The haircut immediately thrust Buena in the center of a firestorm. Public figures and celebrities, including Gov. Phil Murphy and the film director Ava DuVernay, weighed in, as did people from around the country.

“This is the worst kind of racism — public humiliation based on cultural norms. Shame on you and your district,” Gil Jordan of Coram, Mont., who described himself as “a disappointed white guy,” wrote in an email.

James McDowell wrote that he didn’t believe race was a factor, and the incident was about why Johnson didn’t have a hair cap that met the guidelines. The National Federation of State High School Associations said its rules committee would review the hair guidelines.

The documents show how school superintendent David Cappuccio scrambled to take charge as the controversy escalated. He obtained statements from Maxwell and Brett Aretz, the assistant wrestling coach, two days after the incident. Neither has commented publicly about the incident or responded to queries seeking comment.

Aretz provided a three-sentence statement that recapped Johnson’s encounter with Maloney, which began when the referee told the teen he could not compete without a covering that attached to his head gear, and ended with the haircut.

Maxwell submitted a more detailed timeline that began with Maloney conducting a skin check for Johnson at 6:45 p.m. and ordering the wrestler to shave his face. When Johnson returned, he was told that he needed a cap for his hair, and returned to the locker room to obtain one, according to the statement.

It was when Johnson was about to shake hands with his opponent from Oakcrest High School that Maloney inspected his hair cap and said it was unacceptable, Maxwell said. The interaction with the referee ended after Johnson’s hair was cut, and he was allowed to wrestle, the statement said.

In an email days after the incident, Cappucccio expressed concern about both statements, but did not elaborate. He questioned who was responsible for ensuring that the wrestling team had the proper equipment. There was no response in the documents provided to The Inquirer.

“I asked the coach to explain to me, in details, the events that occurred on the evening of the match," the superintendent wrote in an email to school board members. "After listening, I expressed my concern with the manner in which he handled the situation.”

The superintendent hand-delivered notices to Maxwell and athletic director David Albertson required for the school board to discuss them at an emergency board meeting on Dec. 26. He indicated that a written reprimand would be issued for both, documents show.

“I will take some progressive disciplinary action against personnel within the district relative to their mishaps in this situation,” Cappuccio wrote in a Dec. 21 email to Robert Bumpus, executive Atlantic County superintendent for the state Department of Education.

Bumpus replied the same day, “I applaud you in how the district has handled this touchy issue.”

It was unknown if disciplinary action was taken. Cappuccio declined to comment, citing privacy rules. In a Dec. 24 email to teachers union president Thomas Ruhl, the superintendent said he was standing by a comment made in a meeting with Ruthl “that the only action I am taking at this time was a letter of reprimand.”

The district immediately asked the NJSIAA not to schedule Maloney to officiate any meets involving the Buena team. It also began bracing for a possible lawsuit, and business administrator Pasquale Yacovelli in a Dec. 24 email suggested contacting the New Jersey Schools Insurance Group, “as there is likely a potential future claim.”

Cappuccio, sometimes late at night, on weekends, and during the holiday recess, sent a flurry of emails. In a Jan. 2 letter to Larry White, executive director of the NJSIAA, Cappuccio asked the association to determine if Maloney “conducted himself ethically and professionally” and “whether there was any incident of racial bias.”

Two days after the incident, Alexis Franklin, a legal specialist with the state civil rights agency, contacted Albertson, the athletic director, to gather information “regarding a potentially racial incident that occurred at a wrestling match.”

A spokesperson said the investigation was continuing.

Maloney, 62, of Berlin, considered one of the top referees in the state, was embroiled in another controversy after allegedly using a racial slur at a social gathering in 2016 with wrestling officials. Maloney apologized and was ordered to attend sensitivity training. He denied any wrongdoing in the Buena incident in a recent tort claim notice that seeks $100,000 in damages and alleges emotional distress, defamation of character, and loss of income.

As the Buena controversy dragged on, the email exchanges between Dominic Speziali, the attorney for Johnson and his family, and Cappuccio grew testy after a Jan. 9 Buena meet was canceled, after the assigned referee said he would not allow Johnson to compete without a hair covering. Speziali said in an email that Johnson was “now being targeted and placed in a hostile situation,” and chastised the district for failing to notify him. Cappuccio said there was no need because the district was trying to resolve the matter.

“There appears to be a somewhat orchestrated effort being put forth by some individuals to go out of their way to further harass and humiliate, if not outright subjugate, a 16-year-old boy that simply wants to get back to wrestling without distraction,” Speziali wrote in a midnight email to the superintendent.

The superintendent declined interview requests that included major networks, and immediately directed the coaches not to speak with reporters, the documents show. He posted updates periodically on the district’s website and directed the social media manager to not delete negative comments.

“I hope you are surviving the day. I’m sure your phone is blowing up like mine with text messages, emails, etc.," Bill Bruno, NJSIAA’s assistant director, wrote to Cappuccio on Dec. 21.

There was an outpouring of support for Johnson, with letters and packages sent to the school and board office. School officials asked the New Jersey State Police bomb squad to screen the mail as a precaution, but that was deemed unnecessary because no threats against Johnson had been received, documents show.

In one email, a school employee said an agent for an unidentified player with the Oakland Raiders also contacted the school to express support for Johnson. Another message included an offer from Nichole Snyder of Swedesboro to pay for Johnson to have his locks redone.

“I was appalled because of the way it went down,” Snyder, 45, the mother of three sons, said in a recent interview. “You could tell that boy’s spirit was broken. "