BOE Hears Criticism, Support For Football Investigation

By on November 17, 2017

The Verona Board of Education’s Tuesday meeting went on for more than two hours as the body came under renewed criticism for its handling of an investigation into the Verona High School football program. But the BOE also heard from several residents who supported its handling of the matter and its attention to student safety.

“I think that our kids will be men and women if they are respected and if they respect,” said Cinzia Cortese, a Verona parent who is a professor at Seton Hall University. “As a teacher, I want to motivate, not humiliate. And as a coach this should be the same thing.”

On November 4 the BOE released a statement regarding an investigation, which found that 73% of varsity starters said that players’ face masks had been grabbed in an inappropriate way, and 59% of starters said inappropriate language, including cursing at players, had occurred. The investigation also found that water breaks had been denied, among other issues.

The statement noted that the investigation had been concluded but did not say what changes, if any, were being made to the football program. The head VHS football coach, Lou Racioppe, had been placed on administrative leave in October and the team’s season ended on November 9. Verona coaches are hired each year for their sport season only. There were no sports hiring or termination resolutions on Tuesday’s agenda.

Citing a legal mandate of confidentiality, the Board has repeatedly said that it cannot disclose what complaints were brought or by whom, but that did not stop some of those in attendance from trying to ask again.

“In the six Verona schools, it is virtually a daily occurrence of some investigative set of interviews going on,” BOE President John Quattrocchi said in response to a question from former football player Greg D’Alessandro. “Virtually daily, all year long and sometimes in the summer. It would be incorrect to say that there was an incident that we’re talking about here that was unique in its need to be checked out. That would be incorrect. It happens daily, from pre-K to 12th grade. The procedure depends on the nature of what the concern is. The extent of the concern. Not every concern has the same weight.”

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“The obligation of the school district,” Quattrocchi added, “is to determine, as quickly as possible, whether there is anything more to a story than what might be on the surface.” Quattrocchi also said that the district had “input” from its attorneys at each step of the investigative process it followed.

The Board and some football players have come under sharp criticism over the investigation, which made some speakers angry. “I think it is disgusting when you take shots at people and their families for something that you disagree on,” said Joe DeVivo, who has been a coach of the Verona Eagles youth football program for 14 years, eight of which as the coach of its 7th and 8th grade A team. “Facebook posts, calling kids snowflakes, it’s disgusting.”

DeVivo did not mention Racioppe by name in his remarks, though he did note that he had played “for this particular staff member” 30 years ago. “What happened in football 30 years ago or 20 years ago cannot happen now,” DeVivo said. “We tackle differently, we game plan differently … I feel sorry for some of the coaches that are on this team now, the assistant coaches, because this culture is something that they are in that maybe they didn’t know how to get out of.”

“We want this game to thrive,” DeVivo added, “and if you really love football the way a lot of us do, you want to make sure this game thrives. In order for that to thrive we have to get the right people in here … It’s not OK to not have positive role models. You can get the same effort, you can challenge players.”

DeVivo’s remarks did not sit well with Mike Passero, who is the president of the executive board of the Verona Eagles. “I’ve got a guy up here that blasts our coaching staff and does not like Lou Racioppe because his son didn’t get an opportunity to play football,” Passero said. “And his son didn’t get an opportunity to play football because he wasn’t good enough to play football.” The remarks were greeted by applause and shouts of approval from some members of the audience, and Quattrocchi and the BOE’s lawyer immediately stopped Passero from making further comments in that vein.

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Michael McKeen, a former high school football player and parent of a current VHS player, asked the audience to focus on the players. “At the last Board of Ed meeting I couldn’t help but look at the players and wonder what they were thinking,” he said. “There was a lot of tension in the room. These kids were probably wondering, did I do the right thing by standing up and answering these questions truthfully?”

“Imagine if you had enough courage and you went to the Board, and you went to the school administrator and you thought you were doing everything right and then you read on social media that they’re calling you a snowflake?” McKeen continued. “Everybody’s coming in and talking about the questions. I’m more interested in the answers that these kids gave. People say they were softball questions. The way I’m looking at it, it made the kids feel comfortable to talk. And that’s what we want, we want the kids to feel comfortable and to give their opinion on things.”

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