BUENA VISTA TOWNSHIP — The Buena Regional Board of Education said Wednesday its members were “troubled” by a video showing a black Buena wrestler having his dreadlocks cut rather than forfeit a match.

The high school’s library was packed with parents and residents Wednesday night for an emergency meeting to address the video that sparked a national discussion last week and was met with charges of racism. A handful of civil rights activists urged the board to do right by wrestler Andrew Johnson. One speaker called Johnson a hero, and was met with applause.

After taking public comment, the board held an executive session out of earshot of residents and media to discuss “personnel matters.” Superintendent David Cappuccio would not elaborate.

Dominic Speziali, an attorney for Johnson’s family and a Buena Regional High School graduate, told the school board Wednesday the family blames referee Alan Maloney — the embattled official who reportedly told Johnson he had to either forfeit the match or get an impromptu haircut because he did not have the proper hair cover — not the team’s coach or trainer.

“(Andrew and his family) are supportive of the coaching staff, specifically (coach) George Maxwell and (trainer) Mrs. (Denise) Fields, who was there cutting his hair. The blame here is on the referee,” Speziali said. “The burden that Andrew had to carry was caused by the referee and caused by the entities that allowed him to be in that position.”

The family is not seeking legal action, Speziali said. Johnson’s family was not present at the meeting, at their lawyer’s urging.

Johnson will not be wrestling Thursday with his team at the Hunterdon Central Tournament, Speziali said, but he hopes to compete again soon.

The meeting was limited to discussion of last week’s incident, and public comment. Cappuccio made clear the school's decision.

“(The district has) informed the NJSIAA that our school district and its athletic teams will not compete in any contest officiated by this referee from this point forward,” he said.

At the top of the meeting, Cappuccio read a statement on behalf of the board:

“We have viewed the video footage that has gone viral and are deeply troubled by the embarrassment and humiliation that a young student athlete endured,” Cappuccio said. “District administration has been working diligently around the clock the past several days collecting as much information as possible about the sequence of events occurring this past Dec. 19.”

The board’s “internal investigation remains ongoing at this time,” he said. The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association is working with the state Division on Civil Rights, and Cappuccio said the board will use the results of the joint investigation to determine whether to pursue any further action related to the incident.

Video of the incident was posted online last week by SNJ Today’s Mike Frankel and quickly went viral, sparking a nationwide discussion, with elected officials and celebrities calling the incident racist. Others claimed the decision was commonplace at wrestling matches. Maloney is suspended awaiting the results of the NJSIAA’s investigation.

Some teachers were in attendance Wednesday, supporting Johnson in the face of what they said is clear discrimination.

“It’s the type of work we do,” said Kelly Morris, a teacher from Gloucester County. “I think all teachers should be fighting for equality in schools. And we don’t have that, so it’s important.”

Melissa Tomlinson came with Morris, both of them wearing “Black Lives Matter at School” shirts. Tomlinson is a special education teacher at Buena Regional Middle School and has taught in the district for 11 years.

She came “because our students matter. They matter a lot to me,” Tomlinson said. “And when the skin and the criminalization of the hair of a black youth occurs within ... something that has to do with the school, we have to ask questions about the system itself and what kind of white supremacist rules we’re upholding.”

According to the rules of the National Federation of State High School Associations, a wrestler’s hair “shall extend no lower than the top of an ordinary shirt collar in the back, shall not extend lower than earlobe level on the sides and shall not extend below the eyebrows in the front.”

Speziali said Johnson’s brother, Nate, who is also a wrestler for Buena, was told he would need a cover for his hair, too. Nate’s hair is short and does not go past his ears. He said Maloney referred to the state of their hair — “you have braids” — not the length, in his decision.

“I know what the regulations are,” Speziali said. “I think it’s a question of what (Maloney’s) reasoning is.”

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Contact: 609-272-7260 cshaw@pressofac.com Twitter @ACPressColtShaw

Staff Writer

I cover breaking news on the digital desk. I graduated from Temple University in Dec. 2017 and joined the Press in the fall of 2018. Previously, I freelanced, covering Pennsylvania state politics and criminal justice reform.

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