SOUTH ORANGE / MAPLEWOOD, NJ — The South Orange-Maplewood School District has hired an independent professional to conduct the investigation into the Columbia High School baseball coaching staff that was announced at the Feb. 22 Board of Education meeting, after a former player alleged in a recent lawsuit that he was repeatedly bullied by the four coaches.
The district has retained LeRoy Seitz, who currently serves as the interim superintendent of schools for the Parsippany-Troy Hills School District, to look into whether head varsity coach Joe Fischetti, assistant varsity coach Matt Becht, assistant junior varsity coach Sam Maietta and freshman coach Steve Campos engaged in harassment, intimidation and bullying — in violation of the state’s HIB law — as the lawsuit suggests. According to his contract dated Feb. 26, Seitz will be compensated for this work at a rate of $125 per hour with a maximum total of $5,000, plus travel and other customary expenses.
District spokeswoman Suzanne Turner said Seitz was hired after an RFP was issued for the position. Turner said an outside professional had to be brought in because the district does not have enough personnel to allow one of its own employees to conduct the thorough investigation the situation warrants in a timely fashion.
And according to Turner, Seitz is quite capable of handling the task.
“He’s a former superintendent, so he has lots of experience doing all kinds of things like this,” Turner told the News-Record in a March 18 phone interview, referring to Seitz’s stint as permanent superintendent of Parsippany and Troy Hills schools from 2006 to 2013 before his return as interim superintendent last year. “He’s very familiar with how internal investigations of this kind of thing go.”
Turner said she believes Seitz has begun his investigation, though she is not sure when exactly he started. He should have his findings within the next two to four weeks, she added. The contract states that he will review all provided documentation, interview witnesses and consult HIB policy before writing a detailed report as to whether HIB was perpetrated by the coaches. He will also meet with the board and district administration to discuss his findings.
Even though the investigation has just begun, there is already some controversy concerning it. Anthony DeFranco — father of David DeFranco, the former CHS baseball player now suing the coaches and district officials — told the News-Record that no one in his family has been contacted by Seitz regarding the investigation.
Likewise, Randy Nathan, an anti-bullying consultant who also claimed that his son, Alex Nathan, was bullied by the coaching staff, said no one from his family has been interviewed despite the fact that the district has verified 10 cases of HIB perpetrated by the coaches against his son and David DeFranco between August 2014 and August 2015. Those cases included allegations that the coaches created a hostile environment for Alex Nathan by talking about him to other players and benching him while 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 Alex Nathan and David DeFranco from the team after Randy Nathan and David DeFranco complained to the district about the coaches’ treatment of the team in general.
Randy Nathan told the News-Record that he does not understand why the district hired Seitz to conduct the investigation when superintendents do not traditionally look into bullying incidents — a district’s anti-bullying coordinator is supposed to handle that task, as mandated by the New Jersey Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act. Therefore, Randy Nathan said he wonders just how familiar with HIB policy Seitz truly is. He said he would have preferred for the district to contract with an expert in bullying law such as David Nash, director of legal education for the Foundation for Educational Administration.
Overall, Randy Nathan said he is not optimistic about the investigation after seeing the way it is going so far.
“It is no different from things that have happened,” Randy Nathan said in a March 17 phone interview, referencing his disgust about the way the district has responded to his complaints about the coaches since he first voiced his concerns in August 2014. “I’m somewhat reluctant to believe that this so-called independent investigator really is an independent investigator.”
Randy Nathan’s doubts about Seitz’s impartiality stem from the fact that Phil Stern, the SOMSD’s counsel and anti-bullying coordinator, was at one point employed by the Parsippany-Troy Hills School District. Stern resigned as labor counsel on Jan. 22, 2009, according to the minutes of the Parsippany-Troy Hills’s Board of Education meeting from that date, so he was working there during the time Seitz was superintendent. As a result, Nathan said he is worried that Stern will somehow influence Seitz into ruling that no bullying took place.
Seitz and Stern did not respond to requests for comment before press time March 22.
Turner confirmed that Stern was employed by the Parsippany-Troy Hills district to handle one matter, but it was only for a brief period of time during which Stern and Seitz never actually worked together. She further stated that Stern’s past employment does not make Seitz’s hiring a conflict of interest because Stern is not the subject of Seitz’s investigation.
But Jeffrey Youngman, the lead attorney representing David DeFranco in his litigation, said it is “absurd” to suggest that Stern will not be investigated. Though Youngman said Stern’s work history would not necessarily make it a conflict of interest to have Seitz conduct the investigation, he stressed Stern will have to be interviewed since he was the one who looked into all past complaints against the coaches. Just because Stern is not the one being accused of bullying does not exclude him as someone in the thick of this situation, he said.
Youngman also finds it bizarre that he recently learned the board had rejected three HIB complaints against the coaches supposedly regarding David DeFranco, even though he said neither his client nor anyone related to him ever filed those complaints.
“If there were actual HIB complaints filed with respect to these three incidents, I’d like to see them,” Youngman told the News-Record in a March 18 phone interview. “How did they suddenly appear in February or March of 2016, when my client graduated last June? Is he filing HIB complaints now while he’s in college? I don’t think so.
“It seems rather convenient that after suit is filed on behalf of David DeFranco,” he continued, “that they come out of the blue. I find it very strange.”
When asked about these three new HIB complaints, Turner said the district cannot comment on issues of student and staff confidentiality.
As for the ongoing investigation into the coaches, Youngman said he finds it “ridiculous” that the district is going through with this “sham” of a process when it already has the 10 verified cases of HIB against Fischetti, Becht, Maietta and Campos — nine of which were confirmed by Superintendent of Schools John Ramos Sr. himself, reversing Stern’s original rulings that no HIB was involved. Regardless of what Seitz finds, he said the lawsuit will be what really matters.
“I don’t care what they do,” Youngman said, adding that he would object if the district tried to use the results of the investigation during the trial. “The police are policing the police. Let them do whatever they want. I’m in the judicial branch — I’ll let a judge make that determination, not some ‘independent investigator.’ I’m going to rely upon the courts.”
Meanwhile Randy Nathan said he wants the investigation to be conducted as fairly as possible, though at the same time he would just like to be done with the entire situation. At the end of the day, he said he should not have to be in this position at all.
“They have 10 verified cases of HIB,” Randy Nathan said, adding that this investigation “shouldn’t be happening in the first place.”
According to Turner, it is too premature to say what the district will do if Seitz finds that the coaches did engage in bullying, though she added that the district would act quickly to ensure that the baseball season is not disrupted. While the investigation is taking place, the spokeswoman said the coaching staff will continue to work with the players since all four are presumed innocent. She said the district is not worried about any HIB incidents taking place for the time being.
“If we had any concerns, we would not have allowed them to be reappointed,” Turner said.
David DeFranco’s lawsuit contains 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. David 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. 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 written letters in favor of them.
Seitz enters this situation a few years after experiencing some controversy of his own. In 2011, Gov. Chris Christie called him the “poster boy for greed” after discovering that the then-superintendent of the Parsippany and Troy Hills schools had agreed to increase his own pay to $212,000 per year in 2009. Since that raise conflicted with Christie’s 2011 salary cap of $175,000 for state and school employees, the district reduced Seitz’s salary, leading to Seitz unsuccessfully petitioning to recoup lost funds before resigning in 2013. He was then named interim superintendent in November 2015 following his successor Scott Rixford’s departure in the fallout of an unsuccessful new middle school schedule.