ABSECON — When her son came home and told her that hours at the basketball court at Ashton Marsh Elementary School had been reduced, Christine Parker was disappointed. With summer time approaching, she said, he would no longer be able to spend his days playing at what had become the best spot to find local pickup games.
When her son came home and told her that hoops had been removed and basketball play banned entirely for the rest of the summer, Parker couldn’t help but wonder why, taking her argument to Facebook and promising to address the school board directly.
Now, the issue has pitted neighbor against neighbor, devolved into social media bickering, and has one resident claiming he fears for his life as retribution for his complaints over the matter.
The Absecon Board of Education made the decision to close the courts after nearby resident Ed Solty addressed the board with issues he had over the court’s usage. The hours were not being followed and foul language was being used by those playing, he said. Those were not his only issues, however. What ultimately prompted him to seek the court’s closure, he said, was being confronted at his home by a group of angry basketball players.
Solty said he doesn’t have a problem with children playing basketball. In fact, the courts are set back from the road, almost to the rear of the elementary school well away from residential properties. But it’s not children playing there, he said. It’s what he described as “out of towners,” large groups of them that roam the streets and make him and his family feel unsafe, he said.
“It’s not the jovial bouncing of basketballs,” he told the board. “The majority of the time its these larger groups of people. I don’t let my daughter outside (when they’re around.)”
Parker said her issue was with how the process was expedited. The decision to close the courts, she felt, was made without enough public input. Summertime closure unnecessarily hurts children who would use the court without issue during their vacation, she argued.
It’s also an issue of safety. With no other place to play basketball in Absecon, Parker said, her son has to ride his bike more than two miles into Galloway Township for the next closest public basketball courts.
“There are many Absecon children who are being punished because of a select few,” she said. “This was brought to one school board meeting to my knowledge by one Absecon resident. Instead of discussing the issue further or finding a compromise, the board decided to close these basketball courts to everyone until school opens again.”
Parker claims it’s unfair. She said she’s received support from neighbors, including some who live closest to the courts and say it hasn’t negatively impacted their lives.
Solty said he’s in favor of public courts, but not at the elementary school, where there’s little oversight. Police have been called to the courts on several occasions to disperse players. One of those calls came when Parker’s son was playing with his friends. Police were apologetic, Parker claimed, telling her son they were sorry as they ushered them off the court.
When presented with Solty’s testimony, the board decided it was best to simply close the courts.
“We’ve always had hours for the basketball courts, but what we had were several complaints, and in that process we discussed with our board and made the decision that when school is not in session (the basketball courts) will be closed,” Absecon school district superintendent Theresa DeFranco said.
When asked if the board received complaints from multiple residents, DeFranco would only say that there were complaints over multiple incidents.
DeFranco added that residents were invited to address the board and that, until being informed of Parker’s complaint, that neither she nor the board had heard from residents seeking to keep the courts open. Despite Parker’s pleas to reconsider, no action was taken at a recent board meeting.
For Solty, what he sees as a need to protect his family has put him in the crosshairs of a social media bullying campaign, he said. In a thread on Facebook, residents wondered why the courts had been closed but could not find an answer. Eventually, a user found a copy of publicly available Board of Education minutes stating Solty’s name and address and his reason for speaking to the board, and posted it as a comment.
Though he doesn’t use Facebook himself, Solty said, he’s been made aware of the various threads about the court issue and he feels he’s been bullied. He also told the board he feels unsafe, a comment that prompted a call of “come on,” from an audience member.
Though Solty and Parker, representing two factions, are on opposite sides, both say they’re committed to bringing basketball to Absecon. Parker is currently looking for solutions to the problem, inquiring about possible fundraising efforts or planning to appear before Absecon council to advocate for public basketball courts. For his part, Solty said he could see himself supporting the effort and would like to see public basketball courts in Absecon, too. Just as long as they’re not near his home.