Amid tensions over a racial incident and the cancellation of the boys lacrosse season at Haddonfield Memorial High, school administrators invited leaders of the Camden County East Chapter of the NAACP to meet with teachers on Friday and conduct diversity and sensitivity training.
"Hopefully this is a beginning. But the board of education has to jump in to make it a priority to deal with hate," said Lloyd Henderson, the chapter president. The 90-minute training session and workshop, he said, included a short history of the use of N-word and the pain it causes, and the work of the NAACP to increase awareness and dialogue.
Interim Superintendent David T. Lindenmuth canceled lacrosse games on May 11 after the school district investigated a report that a youth on the lacrosse team called a female athlete from another school the N-word as she was stretching on the Haddonfield track. The slur was heard by at least three other athletes from other schools who were with the girl during a meet between Haddonfield, Sterling, and Haddon Heights schools on May 1.
Since no one on the team would admit using the slur, Lindenmuth decided that the team would forfeit its final two games. The decision stung because the team had been expected to be competitive for a state title this year.
Carey Savage, a vice president of the NAACP chapter and a retired educator, school administrator, and coach, led the diversity training of the school's 75 teachers. "It went very well," he said afterward. "We got positive feedback … and the administration said they will probably follow up with the students."
Savage, who worked in the Camden City and Vineland school systems for 40 years, said he was not told whether the students' diversity training would happen before the end of the school year.
Efforts to reach Lindenmuth and other Haddonfield school officials were unsuccessful Friday. Neither he, the school board president, nor the school business administrator responded to calls and emails seeking comment.
Cynthia Koloski, a special education English teacher who has been with the district six years, said she was glad that the NAACP met with the teachers. "The most important thing said by the team that came in, kindly, to help us with our problem is that we need to focus on growth. … But any kind of change requires consistent work. … I think Haddonfield is up to the task," she said.
Henderson said that he, too, was pleased with the session, which continued for nearly two hours though it had been scheduled to last 45 minutes. "We accomplished what we set out to do," he said. "We had a pretty frank and open discussion and the staff said they would be taking measures to make sure this situation won't happen again."
The principal and athletic director also attended.
On Thursday night, however, the mood was quite different. About 100 residents attended a Haddonfield school board meeting and many said they were disappointed in the decision to cancel the lacrosse season. Some suggested that the girl who heard the slur might have "misheard or misunderstood" what was said.
Lacrosse coach Damon Legato said athletic officials took the matter seriously and immediately began looking into it. When the players would not comment, their silence was wrongly viewed "as a sign of guilt," Legato said at the meeting. "This has been a difficult situation for everyone involved."
Others said that they stood by the 40 boys on the team, all of whom are white, when each of them told school officials he didn't use the slur and did not know who did.
"It's like Haddonfield's #metoo day," Henderson said. "A great deal of people are in great denial. More than half the people who addressed the board said it didn't happen."
Haddonfield School Board President Adam Sangillo said the investigation was conducted by the district's harassment, intimidation, and bullying specialist who is trained to handle such cases. Three witnesses from another school were interviewed, he said.
"Each one said they personally witnessed the incident as it happened on the field. They presented their account to the Haddonfield investigator. Their testimony corroborated the account of the visiting athlete," Sangillo said at Thursday's meeting.
Henderson said the NAACP has received several other reports of racially charged incidents in the Haddonfield schools. "We have to get to the root of the problem," he said.
A complaint filed with the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association by officials at Sterling High has been 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 incident is just part of a disturbing pattern at Haddonfield, ranked as one of the top schools in the country for academics and athletics.
Staff writer Melanie Burney contributed to this article.