The Phillipsburg High School wrestlers who were not entered in this weekend’s NJSIAA District Tournament will hold a press conference tonight at the Phillipsburg office of attorney Scott M. Wilhelm.
According to a press release, the wrestlers will address the media at 7:30 p.m. regarding the issues surrounding a recent photograph of them in the wrestling room and the Phillipsburg school district’s supervision of their participation in the NJSIAA District Tournament. No further details were provided.
Under statewide athletic association rules, wrestlers can be entered into the NJSIAA District Tournament just before it begins. The NJSIAA District 1 Tournament, which Phillipsburg, winner of a state-record 41 district championships, is hosting, will begin Saturday at 10 a.m.
The school has been embroiled in a controversy over the release of a photo earlier this week depicting seven Phillipsburg grapplers surrounding a dark brown practice dummy (a common color of the leather apparatus) hanging from a rope around its neck and clad in a wrestling T-shirt of rival Paulsboro, which it defeated on Feb. 1.
The NJSIAA on Thursday afternoon completed a review of the school district’s internal investigation into the matter and determined the photograph is a flagrant violation of the association’s sportsmanship rule.
“I have reviewed the report submitted by Phillipsburg High School and reviewed the photograph posted online through several media outlets,” NJSIAA Executive Director Steve Timko said. “Most importantly, the photograph depicts a fundamental disrespect for an opponent, using violent imagery that has no place in high school sports.
“None of the students pictured in the photograph will be participating in the NJSIAA State Wrestling Tournament, which starts this weekend. That is an appropriate response to this violation of the Sportsmanship Rule. The NJSIAA will continue to work with the Phillipsburg administration to develop a corrective action plan to ensure that actions like this do not happen in the future.”
An attorney with Winegar, Wilhelm, Glynn & Roemersma, a personal injury law firm with offices in Phillipsburg and Bethlehem, Pa., Wilhelm is representing Phillipsburg wrestlers Tyler Agans, Daniel Wissing, Tyler Petchonka, Jimmy Schuitema, Broderick Bupivi, Tim Hinkle, Andrew Horun and Garrett Wolfinger.
Wilhelm, according to a receptionist at his Phillipsburg office, was not immediately available for comment.
A member of the Skyland Conference, Phillipsburg, ranked No. 3 in the New Jersey Wrestling Writers Association’s final statewide Top 20 poll, competes against many teams in the Courier News and Home News Tribune area, having defeated eight of them this year en route to finishing undefeated for the first time in school history.
Phillipsburg Schools Superintendent George Chando, who said the district took action against the seven wrestlers pictured in the photo, has not identified those students, nor has he disclosed what corrective or disciplinary action may have been taken.
It is unclear when the controversial photo was taken, when school officials became aware of it, and if any students were disciplined before the image became public.
Citing a private student matter, Phillipsburg principal Greg Troxell told The Express Times that neither he nor any other school official would comment regarding why any of the wrestlers were not entered in the NJSIAA District Tournament.
The controversial photo shows seven boys, six of whom are wearing Phillipsburg wresting attire, gathered around a dark brown wrestling dummy that is hanging by its neck from a rope in a wrestling room. Two of the boys in the picture are wearing hooded sweatshirts with each of the hoods raised to a point. One boy standing behind the wrestling dummy is saluting, while another is kneeling in front of the mannequin holding a paddle.
The photo has generated robust debate on Internet message boards and social media. Some construe the photo to have racial overtones, while others dismiss it as a misguided adolescent prank.
“These individuals not being included in the lineup, from a distance, tells me the school has taken disciplinary steps that are causing these individuals to forfeit the opportunity to participate in a school-sanctioned event,” said Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester, who is a lifelong Paulsboro resident and former mayor of the working-class town.
The Gloucester County NAACP, according to the Allentown Morning Call, issued a statement saying, in part, that it wanted “a letter of apology from the offenders to Paulsboro and the Gloucester County community.”
Under an agreement that was established at the onset of this academic year with the office of the Attorney General of New Jersey regarding the state’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act, the NJSIAA is to report incidents of harassing conduct related to race, gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation or religion to the New Jersey Division on Civil Rights.
A spokesperson for the state’s Division on Civil Rights said it is “monitoring the respective responses of the school and the NJSIAA” and “will review whether further investigation and action is appropriate.”
“Obscene gestures, profanity or unruly provocative language or action toward officials, opponents or spectators won’t be tolerated in the classroom or the field of play,” Timko said.
The NJSIAA’s policy regarding unsportsmanlike conduct of student-athletes before, during or after an event is to declare those involved ineligible for the next two regularly scheduled competitions.
“An investigation was undertaken and upon conclusion of the investigation actions were taken by the district consistent with its policies,” Chando told the Express-Times without elaborating.
Burzichelli said he believed the students should be disciplined in accordance with the New Jersey Education Statue regarding bullying.
“Consequences for a student who commits one or more acts of harassment, intimidation, or bullying may range from positive behavioral interventions up to and including suspension or expulsion of students, as set forth in the Board’s approved Code of Student Conduct,” reads Phillipsburg’s board policy, in part.