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Controversy over racial incident that ended boys' lacrosse season divides Haddonfield High

Haddonfield High school student plans walkout in support of boys lacrosse team over racial incident that halted season.

The Haddonfield High school boys lacrosse team (white uniform) played Cherry Hill East on Tuesday, May 8, 2018. Haddonfield won, 20-6.
The Haddonfield High school boys lacrosse team (white uniform) played Cherry Hill East on Tuesday, May 8, 2018. Haddonfield won, 20-6.Read moreMelanie Burney

Days after Haddonfield school officials ended the season for the high school boys' lacrosse team after a report that one of the athletes used a racial slur against a black athlete from another school, the decision continued to draw controversy and conflicting emotions Monday.

Interim Superintendent David T. Lindenmuth canceled the remainder of the lacrosse season  on Friday after an internal investigation could not identify the team member who made the slur.

On the first day in school for students since the announcement of the cancellation,  a student posted a message on social media urging a walkout Monday afternoon in support of the team. The student, a junior, said he felt "obligated to address the lack of due process and lack of support" school administrators had shown toward student athletes in recent days.  He asked his peers "to take a stand against the injustices" and join a protest, but none  materialized.

Lindenmuth said the student later voluntarily decided to abort the planned protest. Focus groups were held with students and staff instead, he said.

"We encourage our students to use their rights," Lindenmuth said. He defended the decision to end the season, saying, "We took the evidence that we had, and we tried to make the best decision we could, based on the facts we had."

School officials had set a deadline for someone to identify the student who was responsible and later extended it, students said.

"Since we could not pinpoint one, we had to look at the whole team," Lindenmuth said last week.

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 Memorial High School, according to 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 lacrosse players walked by her, said Cydney Thomas, a Haddon Heights track team member who is black. One of the boys told the Sterling athlete "to move, 'N-word,' " Thomas said.  The lacrosse team was practicing on a field surrounded by the track.

The decision to punish the team upset some students, but others saw the decision as just.

Haddonfield seniors Adianna Alston and Taylor Bee, both 18, said they supported the decision.

"I feel that someone should step forward," Bee, who is white, told reporters in front of the school on Kings Highway East. "Canceling the season was probably the only course of action they could do that would be a punishment, a reasonable and fair punishment."

A student wearing a Haddonfield lacrosse shirt said that he was not a member of the team but that his brother, who has graduated, played for the Bulldawgs. The student said Haddonfield lacrosse coach Damon Legato had "looked 40 players in the eye and asked them if they said it, and they all said no."

"You believe three girls over 40 lacrosse players," said the student, who declined to give his name.

According to Bee, some lacrosse members have suggested that the Sterling student may have misinterpreted a remark. She dismissed that possibility and Henderson called the account "a fairy tale."

"It's a pretty distinct statement. I think it's kind of a hard thing to mishear," said Bee.

Added Henderson: "They [the lacrosse players] had a whole week to step up to the plate."

Legato did not respond to messages Monday.

Students said the controversy was a topic of conversation Monday at the school, which enrolls about 850 students in grades nine through 12. Bee said some teachers reviewed the district's "Human Dignity statement," which reads in part:

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 New Jersey state 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.

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.

Alston, who lives in Williamstown and attends Haddonfield as a tuition student, said she has witnessed racial incidents at the school as the only black student in the senior class. She said she has two bi-racial classmates, also seniors.

"There is a lot of ignorance at this school that needs to be addressed," Alston said. "I'm sad that this incident had to happen, but it's finally being addressed."

Ruth Fernands, 18, also a senior, agreed.

"We've had an issue for a while where bad things have been said and done, and it's been covered up, and now it's not. There's room for discourse to happen, and I think that's a step in the right direction," she 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 New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association.

Haddonfield on Friday forfeited its final two games, against West Deptford and Cherry Hill East, ending its season 8-0 in the division, 9-5 overall. Haddonfield would have started the NJSIAA tournament on Wednesday, likely as the No. 7 seed in South Jersey Group 1.

In state tournament pairings released Monday by the NJSIAA,  Shore Regional High in West Long Branch was moved up to No. 7 seed in South Jersey's Group 1. New Egypt was added to the field as the No. 16 seed.