HIB investigation at CHS is delayed

With initial ‘two- to four-week’ inquiry time passed, Seitz has yet to speak to main players

LeRoy Seitz
LeRoy Seitz

SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — A parent of one of the former Columbia High School baseball players who was allegedly bullied by the coaching staff said he has not yet been interviewed by the independent investigator employed by the South Orange-Maplewood School District to look into the matter, although the investigator was hired Feb. 26.

Randy Nathan told the News-Record that the investigator, LeRoy Seitz, has not spoken to him or his son, Alex, despite the fact that Superintendent of Schools John Ramos Sr. said the investigation would take only two to four weeks when he first announced it at the Feb. 22 Board of Education meeting.

News of the investigation came after former player David DeFranco filed a lawsuit against the district alleging that he was repeatedly bullied by head varsity coach Joe Fischetti, assistant varsity coach Matt Becht, assistant junior varsity coach Sam Maietta and freshman coach Steve Campos. Furthermore, when Nathan sent emails to the district and board expressing concern over the matter, he said he never received a response.

The only email Nathan has received recently in relation to the investigation came from the BOE’s special counsel, Katherine Gilfillan, who asked to meet with him to discuss whether he had firsthand knowledge of the circumstances surrounding some of the allegations. Nathan declined to speak with Gilfillan without an attorney present as she represents the board, instead telling her that she could email him with questions because he and his son will only talk to Seitz.

According to Nathan, the way the district has handled the outside investigation thus far is a continuation of the incompetent manner in which it has handled the situation since he first alerted school officials to his concerns regarding the four coaches in 2014.

“It validates all of the challenges and all of the problems that exist within this school system,” Nathan said in an April 20 phone interview. “It’s shameful. I continue to be reminded time and again that there is nobody in that school who can be trusted. All they do is talk the talk.

“No one in the board or the administrator’s office has shown any element of compassion or integrity or kindness over the destructive behavior of these coaches,” he continued.

District spokeswoman Suzanne Turner said that Seitz, the current interim superintendent for the Parsippany-Troy Hills School District, has not interviewed Nathan or anyone else because a “personal emergency” has delayed him from working on the investigation. Turner said Seitz, who is being paid a maximum $5,000 plus travel expenses to conduct the investigation, planned to speak with parties involved in the matter this week. She added that he is scheduled to provide an update to the BOE during its executive session at the May 12 meeting, though she does not know whether he will be ready to provide the results of his investigation then.

Seitz did not respond to requests for comment before press time April 26.

Even if the findings are reported to the BOE, they will not be made public; Turner previously told the News-Record that HIB results are always kept confidential.

But no matter what the results show, Nathan said he believes the investigation will merely demonstrate that the district was trying to protect its own reputation by launching it in the first place. He said if the school system were serious about finding the truth, it would have hired a bullying expert who could have gotten to the bottom of the situation within the intended two to four weeks, not a busy interim superintendent working in his spare time. And Nathan said it also would have employed someone without ties to district officials, referring to the fact that board counsel and anti-bullying coordinator Phil Stern worked for the Parsippany-Troy Hills district while Seitz was the permanent superintendent there in 2009.

Turner previously told the News-Record that Stern handled one matter for that district for a brief period of time, during which he and Seitz never actually worked together.

Above all, Nathan said if the district, were taking this issue seriously, it would have paid attention to the 10 verified cases of HIB it has on record against the coaches — nine of which were confirmed by Ramos himself, reversing Stern’s original rulings that no HIB was involved. All the cases involved either Alex Nathan or DeFranco and took place between August 2014 and August 2015. According to the complaint reports, the incidents included the coaches creating a hostile environment for Alex Nathan by talking about him to other players and benching him while all others played, the Booster Club asking DeFranco and his family not to attend the end-of-year of banquet, and the coaches at one point cutting both boys from the team after Randy Nathan and DeFranco complained to the district about the coaches’ treatment of the team in general.

Since Nathan has no confidence in Seitz’s investigation, he said he plans to petition the New Jersey Education Commissioner’s Office to conduct its own investigation into the South Orange-Maplewood School District regarding its handling of HIB complaints. The Essex County Office of Education has already found that the district violated the state’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act by failing to follow the mandated procedure for investigating HIB — CHS Athletic Director Larry Busichio initially had looked into Nathan’s complaints when Stern should have as anti-bullying coordinator — so Nathan said he hopes the commissioner’s office will see there is a problem and get involved.

And by having both a lawsuit and a state investigation to contend with, Nathan said he hopes school officials will see the error in their ways and start taking HIB seriously in order to create a “healthy and safe environment where kids are protected from individuals who can cause harm” instead of one in which bullies are protected. Until that happens, he said he will not stop raising this issue.

“If the school district wants to get me out of their face, then they should speak the truth,” Nathan said. “But I’m confident that the only way they’re going to do it is if I continue to be present, continue to be around and continue to not settle for excuses, deception and lies.”

Meanwhile, the CHS baseball season started on April 1, with the full coaching staff on board. And though Nathan has criticized the district for allowing the four coaches to continue working with students while being the subjects of a HIB investigation, Turner said there have been no complaints filed against Fischetti, Becht, Maietta and Campos. But Nathan said he has been in contact with a few current team members who are “miserable” but too afraid to say anything out of fear of being retaliated against, which is what Nathan said happened to his son and DeFranco.

DeFranco’s lawsuit draws from many of the incidents from the 10 verified HIB complaints, including a time when all four coaches allegedly locked the student in a room and yelled at him for complaining to the district about them. DeFranco also alleges that Fischetti, Becht, Maietta and Campos used “lewd, racist and vulgar” language and used expletives when making reference to himself and his teammates. After being cut and then reinstated, he alleges that he was often told he would be playing in games only to be benched, with the coaches later joking about how well he had played. He also alleges that the coaches at one point did not remove an offensive sign about another player that someone had posted.

The lawsuit comes after several parents voiced their concerns about the coaching staff to the district and board during the past few years, with some speaking out at the board meetings when it came time for the board to reappoint Fischetti, Becht, Maietta and Campos for the 2015 and 2016 baseball seasons. But many parents and players have also come to the coaches’ defense, denying that the four had ever engaged in bullying and praising the way they engage with the students. Most recently, nearly all of the returning players from last year’s baseball team signed a petition supporting the coaches. Coaches, administrators and staff throughout the state and district have also written letters in favor of them.