An allegation that a white Haddonfield Memorial High School boys' lacrosse player hurled a racial slur at a black female athlete from another school has sparked a state investigation and cast a cloud over one of South Jersey's most elite school districts.
The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association on Thursday referred the matter to the state Attorney General's Office for review, said Mike Cherenson, a spokesman for the Robbinsville-based group that oversees high school sports. It will be investigated by the Division on Civil Rights, he said.
The incident allegedly occurred May 1 during a girls' track meet at Haddonfield involving teams from Sterling High School in Somerdale, Haddon Heights High School, and Haddonfield, said Lloyd D. Henderson, president of the Camden County East Branch of the NAACP. The civil rights group is also investigating.
According to Henderson, a black female track athlete from Sterling was on the track lacing her cleats when a group of white Haddonfield boys' lacrosse team members walked by her. One of the lacrosse team members allegedly used the N-word and told the black girl "to get off his track," Henderson said. The lacrosse team was practicing on a field surrounded by the track.
"It was shocking that this incident would have come from Haddonfield," Henderson said. "The school has to take it seriously."
The girl was in tears from the encounter and reported the allegation to Sterling track coach Jeff McIlvane, school officials have said. Several girls from the Haddon Heights team also heard the slur and immediately notified their coach, Haddon Heights athletic director Joe Cramp said Thursday. The Sterling lacrosse coach also was notified about the incident by the Sterling track coach.
James Dizzley, the father of the girl who was called the N-word, said his daughter was "minding her own business" when she heard the racial slur. He was in the stands in the stadium when the incident occurred.
"That's the kind of thing you heard in old movies from slavery times," Dizzley said. "That's definitely not acceptable today."
Details surrounding the incident were sketchy and interim Haddonfield School Superintendent David T. Lindenmuth said his district was completing its own investigation. The school has not been able to identify the player accused of making the remark. The lacrosse players were wearing helmets at the time, witnesses said.
"Obviously, it's concerning and troubling," Lindenmuth said. "We take it very seriously."
Lindenmuth said the school suspended practice for the lacrosse team for two days last week, but resumed practice last Friday. The team, considered a top contender for the state championship, was on the field Tuesday, defeating Cherry Hill East, 20-6. Haddonfield is a powerhouse in sports, with 26 athletic programs and 50 teams. The school also excels academically and has been ranked as by U.S. News and World Report among the top high schools in the country.
Asked whether Haddonfield might consider canceling games pending the outcome of its investigation, Lindenmuth replied: "Nothing is off the table regarding the consequences. That's a possibility, the games being canceled." Haddonfield is undefeated in its division and 9-5 overall.
Henderson urged the district to take swift action.
"If you forfeit a game, that says something. It would send a strong message," he said.
Larry White, NJSIAA executive director, said Haddonfield and Sterling were asked to submit reports on the incident. The group declined to provide a copy of Sterling's report, which was provided to the state, citing student privacy laws. Haddonfield has not provided an account, he said.
Sterling, in its complaint, cited another incident this school year that allegedly occurred Dec. 19 following a girls' basketball game with Haddonfield, White said. A Haddonfield assistant coach who is white gave "high-fives" to the opposing team's white players who were lined up to congratulate the other team, as customary, but skipped two black Sterling players, the complaint alleges. A source said Sterling did not report the incident at the time, hoping to resolve it with Haddonfield.
"As soon as Sterling contacted us, we passed the information along to the Attorney General's Office Division on Civil Rights," White said. "We expect the schools to resolve this matter between themselves and if not then to have the [Colonial] conference get involved."
Lee Moore, a spokesman for the Attorney General's Office, did not return a telephone message Thursday.
Sterling schools chief Mark Napoleon did not respond to telephone and email messages Thursday. McIlvaine also did not respond to a message.
In 2013, the sports association was among the first in the country to adopt bias language rules for high school sports that banned trash-talking. The crackdown, instituted after racial taunting between arch-rivals at a high school football game, prohibits any verbal, written or physical conduct related to race, religion, ethnicity, gender, disability, or sexual orientation and could be grounds for disqualifying an athlete from competing.
Cramp said that he discussed the alleged incident with the Haddonfield lacrosse players with his counterpart from Haddon Heights during a previously scheduled Colonial Conference meeting last week. Haddonfield's athletic director, Lefty Banos, and Sterling's anti-bullying officer met with the Haddon Heights girls' track members who heard the slur and took statements from them, he said.
Henderson said he believes Haddonfield, which enrolls more than 800 students in grades 9 to 12, should hold diversity training for students and staff. The borough has about 12,000 residents, only 1.1 percent of whom population are black.
Across the region, schools have been grappling with a wave of racial incidents that some blame on the nation's racially charged politics. In Philadelphia, the arrest of two black men in a Starbucks has drawn headlines.
Staff writer Jan Hefler contributed to this article.
This story has been updated to correct the date the alleged racial slur was made.