Members of the Verona High School football community, from current players and parents to former ones, attended the Board of Education meeting on Monday night in support of Coach Lou Racioppe, who was placed on administrative leave three weeks ago.
“I don’t feel he deserved to be suspended,” said Frank Ferrari, parent of two former football players and past president of the Fifth Downers, Verona’s football boosters group. “Lou is a tough coach, he pushed them hard and that’s what a good coach does. Lou is here to win football games and to develop kids who want to try to play on the next level.” The 21 people who came to the microphone (see video, starting here) uniformly praised Racioppe’s leadership. “He made me the man I am today,” said CJ Lavery, a football captain who has been both the team’s quarterback and wide receiver this season, and who attended Racioppe’s football camps beginning in elementary school. “I would love to play another game with my coach next to me.”
The frustration in the meeting audience was clear from the comments at the microphone to the occasional heckling of BOE representatives. Speakers wanted to know why the matter hadn’t yet been resolved, why the players had been questioned without parents present, the identity of the accusers and when Racioppe, who has been Verona’s head football coach for almost two decades, would be back at his post. They were critical of certain players on the team and their parents, who they viewed as not up to the challenge of football.
“I realize that kids today more and more reject the physical work that we did at their age,” said Greg D’Alessandro, who played under Racioppe, beginning with the coach’s first year at VHS, “and I see that their parents are right there next to them, absolving the kids of any accountability to do what they are supposed to do.” D’Alessandro went on to make an assertion that seemed squarely aimed at Superintendent Rui Dionisio, whose son plays on the team. “It is clear to me that the person who is complaining is a person with access to the type of power that can gather evidence against the accused and get that person suspended without that person being notified of the accusations.”
BOE President John Quattrocchi said after the meeting that the Board had consulted with its attorney to make sure there was no conflict of interest with regard to the superintendent. “The guidance we received was clear,” he said, “so long as the issue is not specific to his family, there is no conflict.”
Meeting attendees were also critical of what they characterized as the BOE’s failure to hold a special meeting about the inquiry, even though looking into complaints against school personnel is the responsibility of school administrators–not the superintendent, and not the BOE. “The matter remains with the administrative team,” Quattrocchi told the audience. “There is no decision for the Board to make.” The BOE’s responsibility for school governance means that it must make sure proper legal compliance procedures are followed, particularly regarding confidentiality. BOE members met with the superintendent or were contacted by phone to be apprised of the status of the current inquiry and also reviewed tapes of interviews with the coaching staff. The BOE’s general role in personnel matters is limited to voting on resolutions to hire or fire employees.
Complaints, from and about students and staff, have been part of schools since there have been schools. Most are resolved without ever reaching the level of a formal investigation. When an investigation is needed, however, it follows a process that has become increasingly formalized. In New Jersey, investigations into complaints involving harassment, intimidation and bullying (HIB) cases must follow a state-mandated process and must be completed within 10 days of the initial report. Other investigations follow separately established procedures but do not have to comply with a timeline. The district has not said whether the football inquiry involves HIB, but the investigation has not been completed. As part of this investigation, the coaching staff and all players were questioned.
Some football parents have been commenting angrily on Facebook that their sons were questioned in school. But school administrators are generally regarded to have the right to act in loco parentis, literally in place of parents, when school is in session, particularly in matters involving safety, making such conversations a possibility. The district has not disclosed what questions were asked, though officials have told some football parents that the questions described by other media outlets are inaccurate.
While Quattrocchi did say on Monday that the inquiry into what led to the leave is not “criminal”, neither the school administration nor the BOE has been able to say much else about it. Personnel matters must, by law, be investigated and discussed by school administrators out of the public eye. Michael J. Gross, a lawyer who represents Verona schools, was in attendance at the BOE meeting and said that all of Verona’s football coaches had been given a so-called Rice notice ahead of it. A Rice notice is mandatory in New Jersey when the job performance of a public sector employee is being discussed. If the person agrees to the Rice notice, the investigative body is permitted to talk about that person in private session only. If a person who has been “Riced” waives confidentiality, their situation may be discussed in public. Gross had to caution the daughter of Coach Racioppe not to speak about his comments to her at the meeting because the coach had not waived his right to confidentiality.
It is not known how long it will take for the Racioppe matter to be resolved, but one member of the audience appealed to the district to show compassion. “I have known Lou Racioppe to be a man of integrity and faith,” said Greg Mascera, a lawyer private practice in Verona. “We are in an era now of second chances and forgiveness. So if Lou did in fact veer off the path, I know that Lou will know that it shouldn’t happen again. In this era of forgiveness, if something did go wrong, I ask that you consider that before you take away 25 years of success.”
The first part of last night’s session was a joint meeting with the Verona Town Council. While there was, as at last year’s meeting, some discussion about how revenues that the town collects as payments-in-lieu of taxes, more time was devoted to the district’s next strategic plan and the potential impact of affordable housing construction on the schools. The BOE also got the Council to commit to enacting an ordinance so that the Verona Police could enforce a BOE rule that non-residents cannot use Verona fields without permission or insurance. The field behind H.B. Whitehorne Middle Schools is often the site of soccer games early on Sunday mornings that have not been cleared with the district.