One week after a black South Jersey high school wrestler was forced by a white referee to cut his dreadlocks or forfeit a match, the Buena Regional Board of Education called an emergency meeting Wednesday night.
The special meeting was called to discuss “personnel matters,” but it also presented an opportunity for community members to sound off about the incident, which went viral after a TV reporter tweeted a video of wrestler Andrew Johnson having his hair cut.
Rajhon White, a Buena alum, said the fact that the adults in the gym let that haircut happen reflects a larger problem with the culture of the community.
“It was a direct correlation of what happens. It was Andrew being put in a situation where no one is standing up and fighting for him. You seen the video,” he said. “Everyone is sitting there like, ‘Hmm, this is happening,’ and that is exactly what is happening in these hallways.”
“It’s not surprising,” said Alison Arne of Buena Vista. “It was shocking to see Andrew Johnson’s hair being cut, but it definitely was not shocking that it was allowed to happen.”
Arne, who co-chairs the progressive political group Action Together New Jersey, said the organization is calling for racial-bias training for the school district and raising awareness of the rights of students and parents in these situations.
About a half hour into the Wednesday night meeting, members of the education board went into executive session. They declined to comment on the matter after the meeting.
“The blame here is on the referee,” said Dominic A. Speziali, an attorney representing the Johnson family, who have tasked him with finding out why the incident occurred.
“It’s still not clear to me why that had to happen in that manner,” he said.
The referee, Alan Maloney, has been suspended, pending an investigation by the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association.
In 2016, Maloney found himself in hot water for using a racial slur toward another official at a party during a dispute over homemade wine, which has added to the furor over the incident.
Speziali issued a statement Monday in which Johnson’s parents said Maloney didn’t attend the weigh-in the day of the match. They also say that when Maloney evaluated the teen beforehand, he didn’t raise any issues with the length of his hair or the need to wear a head covering.
But when it came time for the 120-pound match against rival Oakcrest High School, Maloney said the hair cover Johnson had wouldn’t do. He would need to lose his locks or forfeit.
Johnson chose the haircut, which happened as the referee started a 90-second injury clock. He ultimately won the match, but was humiliated.
“He was off to the side crying,” Charles Johnson Jr., Andrew’s 22-year-old half-brother, told WHYY on Sunday. “I felt like he was kind of embarrassed that he had to go through that. And after getting his hair cut in front of the whole school, he had to go wrestle his butt off just to win.”
The Associated Press contributed reporting.