East Hampton High School’s interim superintendent, Richard Burns, and the school’s principal, Adam Fine, had hoped by holding a press conference Tuesday afternoon to pre-empt discussion at the school board meeting that night concerning a defaced boys soccer team photo in the locker room. It was discovered the morning of Nov. 7, a day in which the boys soccer and volleyball teams vied in playoff games here.
But no sooner had the county-championship soccer team, which is largely Latino, filed out of the high school’s auditorium, after having received a standing ovation from the board meeting’s attendees, than all hell broke loose.
For the better part of three hours, until 10:30, a debate involving parents, board members, and the school’s administrators raged. Administrators claimed they had been appropriately “proactive” in trying to ascertain the source of the defaced photo on which swastikas and genitalia had been drawn. Incensed parents of children who played on the boys volleyball team, whose practice followed the soccer team’s on Nov. 6, countered that the fact-finding forays — and a press release sent out earlier Tuesday saying the volleyball players were questioned — had effectively thrown their sons under the bus.
“There were many, many other people in the building that day who could have committed the act,” said one of the incensed parents, Mary Lownes, maintaining that the administration still had no evidence that a boys volleyball player or players had been culpable.
When told by the district’s athletic director, Joe Vas, that care had been used in questioning their sons and that the district guidelines for such incidents had been followed faithfully, Ms. Lownes and other parents, including Layla Bennett and Tiffany King, said that, to the contrary, their children had been “bullied” and “threatened” with the cancellation of their semifinal Division II playoff game that evening with Sayville should the offender or offenders not be produced.
“During the course of their playoff game,” said Ms. Lownes, “it was confusing for those of us seated in the stands to understand why our boys were playing so inconsistently. They seemed visibly shaken, they were yelling at each other, which was so uncharacteristic of their play this season. It now becomes evident that the stress . . . put upon them by your administration and the pathetically bad officiating that evening put them over the edge.” Sayville bested the Bonackers in the encounter three games to one.
The Tuesday press release said in part that “L.C. Nelson, the head custodian, confirmed that . . . all doors to the locker room [on Nov. 6] were locked except the door from the coaches’ office, and [that] no one other than the volleyball team could gain entry into the locker room.”
In rebuttal, Ms. Lownes said that “another coach later discovered that a door that was thought to be locked leading to the locker room wasn’t locked . . . there was another way into the locker room not in the [security] camera viewing area.”
“But by the time,” she continued, “this information was discovered, the damage had already been done: Our boys had been accused, interrogated, shamed, and put in a panic situation over the threat of not playing their playoff game that evening.”
Virtually everyone in the audience agreed that to have drawn swastikas, universally abhorrent symbols of hate and mass murder, was a very serious offense.
Laura Anker Grossman, the board’s chairwoman, said in this regard that the defacing (the investigation of which has been turned over to the East Hampton Town Police Department) could prove to be “a teaching moment” meriting a broader forum on the subject.
But the furious parents, who had apparently not been notified of the inquiry nor been invited to participate in it, seemed of a mind that what Ms. Lownes had called a “witch hunt” ought to serve as a teaching point for the administration as well.
“You didn’t do due diligence,” said Ms. Lownes. “We should have been called. You brought this on yourselves by accusing the volleyball players of committing a hate crime.”
“The kids deserve an apology,” Ms. Bennett said before the meeting was adjourned.
With Reporting by Bridget LeRoy