MAPLEWOOD — More than two years after Columbia High School baseball team’s coaching staff was accused of bullying players, the coaches have been replaced.
But supporters of the coaches say the accusations against them were not true, and the years-long battle over the coaches’ positions was an abuse of the state’s anti-bullying law.
At a meeting earlier this month, the South Orange-Maplewood school district board of education voted to hire James Whalen, a Denville middle school physical education teacher and baseball coach at West Essex, to head the Columbia High School’s varsity baseball team.
Whalen’s appointment effectively ends the tenure of former head coach Joseph Fischetti and assistant coach Matthew Becht, who have come under fire in recent years amid bullying allegations from several students’ parents.
“We are obviously very pleased with this development,” said Randy Nathan, an anti-bullying activist and parent of a graduated player who alleged he was intimidated by the coaches.
“It’s a very positive step that the school actually acknowledged the situation,” he said.
Nathan said the decision to oust the coaches was “long overdue.”
The first allegations against the coaches, which included claims that they made racist, sexist, and other inappropriate remarks, and retaliated against players who spoke out about it, were made in 2014.
The decision is the latest development in the long battle between parents who accused the coaches of bullying, and others who supported the coaches.
Steve Farsiou, the attorney representing Fischetti and Becht, says the battle may be far from over despite the recent decision.
“This is proof that if parents make enough chaos…the board will bend,” Farsiou said of the coaches’ replacement.
“Not only did the coaches have a bond with the players, but they won back-to-back championships. You can’t be a bully and have the team respond like that.”
After allegations were made against the coaches, and a lawsuit by an ex-player over bullying claims, the school conducted two investigations into the coaches’ behavior.
They found that the coaches used inappropriate language during the 2014 season, but dismissed the other allegations against them.
An outside investigator was brought in last year to review the allegations. Though parents on both sides of the argument say the results of independent investigation have been filed with the district, they have not yet been made public. A school district spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
Farsiou said that if that investigation finds evidence of bullying, his clients will be appealing it. And, they have not ruled out a lawsuit to address the “really convoluted history” of the allegations and investigations, he said.
Drew Dix, the president of the Columbia High School Baseball Boosters board, said he was part of a committee the district put together earlier this year to interview candidates for the coaching job. Fischetti and Becht were among the candidates.
Though the committee recommended the coaches be reappointed, the superintendent vetoed the decision, Dix said.
“This is to appease two complaining parents,” Dix said. “We are mystified by that. We are upset by that.”
Farsiou argued that the firing is a misuse of the state’s Anti-Harassment, Intimidating, and Bullying law, which he said “was put in place for a very good reason. It was not put in place so parents and administrators could get rid of coaches. But, that is exactly what’s happening.”
No matter the outcomes of the independent investigation into the ex-coaches, that former player’s lawsuit, or the coaches’ potential legal actions, Dix says the team must focus on the upcoming season.
“We have a great new head coach. We are behind him 100 percent,” Dix said. “We are in it for the kids. We are not going to kick and scream and wish we were living in the past.”