SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — All four of Columbia High School’s baseball coaches were rehired by the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education for the upcoming 2016 season during the Feb. 22 board meeting, days after a former player filed a lawsuit in Essex County Civil Court alleging that he was repeatedly bullied by the coaches during his time on the varsity and junior varsity teams.
Head varsity coach Joe Fischetti and assistant varsity coach Matt Becht were each reappointed by a 6-3 vote, with BOE President Elizabeth Baker and members Johanna Wright and Chris Sabin voting against it. Assistant junior varsity coach Sam Maietta was rehired unanimously while freshman coach Steve Campos’ reappointment was approved by a 5-4 vote, with Baker, Second Vice President Madhu Pai, and members Annemarie Maini and Maureen Jones dissenting.
The board members did not comment during the meeting as to why they voted as they did, though it appeared obvious that none took the decisions lightly. Some hesitated before casting their votes, and both Pai and Sabin acknowledged that the choice was not easy.
“(What we had to vote on today), to be honest, was not a win for anybody including myself, having to make that hard vote,” Pai said after the decisions had been made.
And the situation is far from resolved. Prior to the vote, Superintendent of Schools John Ramos Jr. announced that the school district has retained an independent professional to investigate all open-ended Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying cases and report back to him within the next two to four weeks. If HIB violations are found, Ramos said the district will take “appropriate action.”
Also, the board unanimously passed six policy changes related to HIB in athletics, including one that explicitly forbids members of the athletic department from engaging in or tolerating HIB.
But Jeffrey Youngman, the lead attorney representing former CHS baseball player David DeFranco in his lawsuit, said the district and board should simply enforce the NJ Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act as well as their own HIB policy to protect students — something the suit alleges they did not do. Pointing out that there are 10 verified HIB complaints against the coaching staff in addition to the litigation and years of complaints from parents, Youngman said he does not understand why the coaches would be reappointed to work with children. What is evident to him is that the district and board are not putting the students first, he said.
“This school is circling the wagons around the coaches instead of the children,” Youngman told the News-Record in a Feb. 26 phone interview. “Where do the children come in? It’s amazing to me.”
The 10 verified complaints to which Youngman referred were all incidents involving the baseball program that were judged to be HIB after being brought to the district’s attention between August 2014 and August 2015. The incidents — all experienced by either DeFranco or his teammate Alex Nathan — included allegations that the coaches created a hostile environment for Nathan by talking about him to other players and benching him when all others played, that the Booster Club asked the DeFrancos not to attend the end-of-year of banquet, and that the coaches at one point cut Nathan and DeFranco from the team after Nathan’s father and DeFranco complained to the district about the coaches’ treatment of the team in general.
According to Youngman, nine of those complaints were not ruled as HIB when initially investigated by the district — only one incident in which the four coaches allegedly locked DeFranco in a room and yelled at him for complaining to the district about them was judged as such. But in letters sent to the DeFrancos and Nathans on Aug. 27, Ramos officially reversed those decisions not found in their favor. He also promised to work with the state Department of Education to ensure all CHS athletic programs are in compliance with the Anti-Bullying Act and vowed that “appropriate messages also have been delivered and understood” by staff.
“In taking these actions, on behalf of the district, I apologize to you and (David or Alex) for any violations under the act,” Ramos said in his letter, a copy of which was provided to the News-Record by father Randy Nathan. “I also thank you for helping us work to establish a culture and climate of tolerance, fairness and fun in our athletic programs, consistent with the act’s mandates.”
Considering that Ramos himself verified most of the 10 HIB complaints, Youngman said he does not know why the superintendent has now launched a new investigation, essentially contradicting himself. And while everyone has the right to their own opinion regarding the coaches, he said no one can deny the confirmed complaints or Ramos’ own words.
“Nothing will change the facts, which are in black and white and sitting in front of me, that these coaches engaged in Harassment, Intimidation and Bullying,” Youngman said. “I’ve got the facts. I’ve put them in my complaint. They’re there for anybody to read. They can reject them, but they’re going to have a tough time when they’ve already backed everything that I’ve said.”
The lawsuit does indeed contain many of the incidents from the verified reports in addition to many other issues DeFranco allegedly experienced throughout his time playing baseball for CHS. In the suit, he alleges that Fischetti, Becht, Maietta and Campos used “lewd, racist and vulgar” language and addressed him and his teammates using expletives. After being cut and then reinstated, he was allegedly 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 put up.
All the while, the lawsuit claims the district and board did not take sufficient action to stop such behavior despite the fact that they knew, or should have known, it was occurring.
DeFranco, who graduated from CHS last year, is seeking compensatory and punitive damages plus interest, attorneys’ fees and the costs of the suit, though the total amount is unspecified in compliance with state law. But according to the plaintiff’s other attorney Luanne Peterpaul, the real goal of the litigation is not money — it is about changing the culture of CHS athletics so future students will not have to go through what her client allegedly did.
“The climate and culture of the athletic system, as it’s laid out in our complaint, is ‘boys will be boys,’ and that attitude has changed,” Peterpaul told the News-Record in a Feb. 26 phone interview. “Columbia has to step up and look into the future about what athletics is all about. And it’s not just about winning. It’s about teaching respect, it’s about integrity, it’s about being able to communicate, it’s about discipline, it’s about diligence and teamwork — it’s all of that. But what we’ve seen and what David experienced was none of that.”
District spokeswoman Suzanne Turner issued a statement to the News-Record emphasizing that, while the school system cannot comment specifically on the lawsuit, the district and the board are “taking every measure” to ensure they are compliant with HIB law and its related procedures.
“It is the board and the district’s intention that all district programs provide constructive experiences for students, and that we foster an environment where students and parents can come forward to report concerns without fear of reprisals and retaliation,” the statement reads. “The health, safety and wellbeing of all of our students — whether in the classroom or on the field of play — is our highest priority.”
Fischetti told the News-Record he was advised not to comment on the litigation. Likewise, district counsel and anti-bullying coordinator Phil Stern, athletic director Larry Busichio and CHS Principal Elizabeth Aaron — who were all named in the suit along with the coaches, the board, the district and former acting Superintendent James Memoli — said they were unable to comment. Members of the board who were contacted either did not respond or told the News-Record they could also not comment.
Booster Club President William Krais, who was also named in the suit along with CHS Baseball Booster Inc., similarly said he was unable to talk about the litigation. But he did issue a statement to the News-Record denying the allegations.
“The Columbia High School Baseball Boosters is sorry that Mr. DeFranco and his attorneys have chosen to misuse our court system by filing their baseless complaint,” Krais said in his statement. “But since Mr. DeFranco has chosen this approach, we will let the facts develop in the context of the litigation, not through the press. We are certain that the facts will prove beyond any doubt that the Columbia High School Baseball Boosters did nothing wrong or improper to harm Mr. DeFranco.”
Krais also pointed out that nearly all of the returning players from last year’s baseball team signed a petition supporting the coaches, while coaches, administrators and staff throughout the state and district have written letters in favor of them.
The coaching staff indeed has plenty of supporters despite the allegations. In fact, most of those who spoke during the public comment portion of the Feb. 22 Board of Education meeting praised the coaches and urged the board to rehire them. These speakers included former baseball parent Jerry Auriemma, who recalled that Fischetti never retaliated against his son despite the fact that Auriemma would often criticize the coach for not playing his son more. Busichio’s secretary Amy Singer also said that she knows firsthand that Fischetti and Becht exude professionalism and respect and urged the board to support their staff instead of caving into the demands of some angry parents.
Former pitcher Jesse Evans additionally shared how Fischetti was always there for him after he was hit in the face by a line drive, even after deciding to quit the game out of fear of returning to the mound. And when Evans eventually did decide to come back, he said the entire coaching staff supported him immeasurably.
“With the help of all four of the coaches — Fischetti, Maietta, Campos and Becht — I was able to get my confidence back,” Evans said. “Throughout the next three years not only did I become a better player, I became a better person. And I became someone who will work harder than anyone when they want something bad enough, and I owe that all to them.”
The current CHS baseball players were also a presence at the meeting, with the teammates all wearing “TEAMplayer” shirts in support of their coaches, and two players addressed the board. Reid Evans said the coaching staff cares for every player on the team, shaping them into better people, and supported him when he was depressed about his own academic probation. Sam Berkley said the coaches have made him a better person in the years he has played for them.
Though he acknowledged that the coaches do yell, Berkeley said they never bully any of the students. Instead, he said they have taught him a lot.
“They’ve all been tremendous mentors for me in many ways,” Berkeley said. “I learned accountability, respect and discipline from all of them, and I’ve learned about how to deal with adversity and how to handle the curveballs life throws at you with maturity and dignity.
“They are not only concerned with winning games, but with creating winners in all aspects of life,” he continued. “I would take these four coaches over any of the others in the world.”
Not everyone is so supportive of the coaches, however.
Brian Clark, whose son Brendan was a catcher for the team until graduating two years ago, told the News-Record his boy experienced an “extraordinarily abusive” environment that he has seen drive away numerous players from South Orange-Maplewood baseball entirely. According to Brian Clark, the coaches would constantly scream at Brendan Clark whenever he was in position near the dugout. On one occasion, the yelling was so bad that a West Point graduate who witnessed it told Brendan Clark it was “brutal.” And yet — in email correspondence forwarded to the News-Record — when Clark suggested a different coaching style, Fischetti responded that he feels he was “way too easy” on his players.
In addition, Brian Clark said Fischetti often badmouthed his own players to opposing coaches within earshot of his son — something Brian Clark said he never would have done during his own 10 years coaching baseball in community leagues. When Brendan Clark refused to attend the end-of-year banquet out of disgust with the coaching staff following his senior season, Brian Clark said he learned that his son was never even mentioned at the event, despite the fact that he had been a four-year varsity starter, indicative of what kind of people they are.
“They’re the most petty, childish, petulant, churlish people I know,” Brian Clark, who added that his younger son attends Seton Hall Preparatory School partially to avoid the CHS athletic program, said in a Feb. 27 phone interview. “It’s astounding to me that these so-called adults are allowed to coach young men because they’re less mature than many of the kids on the team.”
Susan Kraham told the News-Record her son Louis was never targeted by the coaches, though she did have an issue with Fischetti after her boy suffered an injury during college recruiting season. Though Louis Kraham’s medical condition should have been confidential under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, Kraham said she was dismayed to see that the coach had spoken to a reporter about the injury. Her husband expressed his grievance about the situation to Fischetti, but she said the coach responded that he was not willing to hurt his credibility by refusing to speak with the media. After that, Kraham said her family did not seek the coach’s help with the recruitment process because they felt Fischetti was more interested in benefiting himself than his players.
Meanwhile, Kraham said she finds it “ridiculous” that the four coaches were rehired with 10 verified cases of HIB against them. It does not come as a surprise though — she said she no longer trusts the district or the board after seeing how they have failed to hold the athletic department accountable after years of complaints about the baseball program. She said she does not send her younger son to CHS because of this.
Of all the parents who have alerted the district to their concerns about the coaches, few have been as vocal as Randy Nathan, whose son Alex was involved in some of those confirmed HIB cases. But things were not always so bad for his son. Randy Nathan — an anti-bullying speaker and author — told the News-Record that his son did not have any problems with the coaching staff the first year he played on the team. But after Randy Nathan spoke with Aaron and Stern regarding the general culture of the program at the request of a few other parents in August 2014, he said things changed.
At the start of the next baseball season Alex Nathan was cut from the team, and though he was reinstated after Randy Nathan met with the coaches and administrators, he said his son was treated poorly and received little playing time, resulting in him resigning from the team in April 2015. Additionally, Randy Nathan said the district violated the Anti-Bullying Act by allowing Busichio to conduct the HIB investigation requested by Randy Nathan when the law requires that only the anti-bullying coordinator can investigate. In February 2015, Stern agreed to conduct the investigation, though this was months after the law-mandated deadline that investigations take place within 10 days of the original complaint and that parents be informed of the results five days after the superintendent reports them to the board. Through it all, he said no action was taken against the coaches to stop the negative behavior.
Randy Nathan grew so upset over the situation that he asked the Essex County Office of Education to conduct its own investigation into the school district, which was completed in August 2015. According to the results, the district did in fact violate the Anti-Bullying Act due to its failure to follow procedure, though the county office could not determine whether Alex Nathan’s termination from the team was actually a retaliatory act, as Randy Nathan believed. As a result, the district was required to send its next five investigation reports to the county plus provide evidence that the district has an anti-bullying coordinator and that all staff know anti-bullying policies.
Today the coaches have 10 confirmed cases of HIB against them due to the complaints filed by Randy Nathan and the DeFrancos. But Randy Nathan said he wishes the district would have just complied with the Anti-Bullying Act from the get-go to correct what issues were there while saving him and his son a lot of grief. Since that did not happen, he said he is grateful to David DeFranco for filing his lawsuit, which will hopefully bring about change. Ideally, he said he would love to see all coaches and administrators involved out of a job, the DeFrancos remunerated, and for David DeFranco and Alex Nathan to receive apologies from the board for all they have been through.
Whatever the result, however, Randy Nathan said there will be no winners.
“The whole thing is very upsetting,” he said in a Feb. 25 phone interview. “This is about young student athletes who only wanted to play ball with their friends and people who cared more about protecting their own than doing what was right by the law. And that’s sad. That’s very sad.”