East Hampton school officials reluctantly acknowledged this week three suspects – but not the ones they accused – have been identified in what was originally labeled a "hate crime".
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The district's press release has only exacerbated an already explosive situation.
The heinous "hate crimes" that spurred impassioned speeches and holocaust references, as it turned out, were treated like childish pranks, the perpetrators getting slaps on the wrists -- no criminal charges were filed. Three students were implicated. They were all suspended from school for a week.
More than a few parents think the incident is being soft-soaped now that the identities of the culprits have been gleaned.
Rumors are circulating that one of the suspects is a star athlete with strong family ties to the school, and his involvement, if made public, would almost certainly preclude admission to a coveted upper echelon institution.
Perhaps not coincidentally, the same school officials who were looking to make examples of the school's boys volleyball team members – who were falsely accused of the crime – are now labeling the incident over, and are not releasing the names of the individuals.
"It went from a hate crime to a prank all of a sudden," one parent said. "If my kid did it they would have thrown him in jail."
Swastikas were drawn on a picture of the varsity soccer coaches, Rich King and the other soccer coaches along with crude drawings of male, genitalia on the players. The vandalism was discovered in the boy's locker room on Sunday, November 6.
The next morning the school's athletic director, Joseph Vas, summoned the two volleyball coaches – one doesn't even work for the district. For the rest of the day, according to accounts from two parents and several students, the players were taken into a small office one by one with three adults in the room. Vas reportedly said to at least one, "We know one of you did it," the volleyball player told his parent. Several said Vas threatened to cancel the playoff game later that day unless they revealed the names of the culprits.
Acting Superintendent Rich Burns told The Independent the week after the incident that the questioning of the volleyball players was "a fact finding mission." He said the tapes clearly identified the volleyball players as the lone possible subjects. "Only three other individuals walked in and they all turned left into the men's room."
Later, though, parents said they learned school officials hadn't even viewed the security tape when the interrogations began.
"They didn't call us for at least a week or so," said East Hampton Town Police Chief Eddie Ecker. "It was when everything hit the fan and they found out everyone was going to the school board meeting."
As it turned out, there were other entrances to the building, and other security cameras. The school campus was crowded with people that day, and many went in and came out of the building.
"The school asked us to pick up the investigation," Ecker said. Officer Matt Rodriguez, the department's school resource officer, apparently discovered that although parents were told the locker room was locked the day the incident occurred, it wasn't. Another video camera captured other individuals in the school, and after questioning three students – two from East Hampton and one from Westhampton -- were determined to be the vandals.
"They were going to make an example of our kids," said one angry parent. "Now all of a sudden they are sweeping it under the rug." I don't want to see some kid get in trouble but, come on."
A group of parents have demanded the school board make school administrators publicly apologize to the soccer team and reprimand Vas, King, and Burns.
Vas, King, and school board president Laura Ankar Grossman all referred to the crime as a "hate crime" at the November 15 board meeting and spoke at length about the horrors of the "hate crime."
"That's using the term wrong," Ecker said. "There is no indication of malice or anti-Semitism. They are not white supremacists." Still, the chief said, it was the school's decision to handle it in-house. "We got involved because they asked us to get involved."
A press release issued a week after the incident, just prior to a raucous school board meeting that evening, stated the head custodian, "confirmed that he was present on Sunday and all doors to the locker room were locked except the door from the coach's office, and no one other than the volleyball team could gain entry into the locker room."
Parents said then that statement was false, and insinuated the school employee had been coerced to say as much or it was completely fabricated. "They are throwing him under the bus," one mother said of the custodian. "Everyone is trying to save his own ass over there."
The much maligned volleyball team, meanwhile, earned the County Good Sportsmanship Award, it was announced last week. It was noted the team had a cumulative 91.6 grade average.
Burns released a statement after the culprits were caught last week: "I would like to express my personal regret to the members of the Boys' Varsity Volleyball team. I know many students and parents were deeply upset about the manner in which the students were questioned in this case. There were no members of the volleyball team involved in this unfortunate incident. I would also like to express my compassion to the Boys' Varsity Soccer team and coaches who were the victims of this disturbing incident."
The district is now referring to the defiled photograph in question as "offensive, racially charged graffiti."
Several parents we reluctant to go on record, fearing repercussions against their children. The athletic program in particular fosters such an environment, one said.
"The school is going to handle this in house," said Detective Lt. Chris Anderson Monday. "in light of the circumstances and facts of the case, we believe that is the best approach."