PHILLIPSBURG, N.J. (CBSNewYork/AP) — The Warren County Prosecutor’s office and local police have launched an investigation to determine whether any criminality was involved with a photo that showed a wrestling dummy with a rope around its neck, according to a published report.
Warren County Prosecutor Richard T. Burke told NJ.com his office was gathering information to determine if there was any criminality involved. He told the publication a file was opened after his office was contacted on Thursday.
The picture showed seven boys in Phillipsburg wrestling attire surrounding a black wrestling dummy wearing a rival Paulsboro High School T-shirt and hanging from a noose. The photo, which was taken after the team won the Group 4 state championship Sunday, also shows two of the boys with the hoods on their sweatshirts fixed into points.
On Thursday, an attorney for the boys – identified as Andrew B. Horun, Tyler Agans, Jimmy Schuitema, Tim Hinkle, Broderick Bupivi, Tyler Petchonka, Daniel Wissing, and Garrett Wolfinger – said the photo was staged “spontaneously” and meant “innocently.”
“Our sole purpose was to promote school spirit and portray our wrestling team as victor over two of our archrivals – Paulsboro High School and Kittatinny High School, and not for any other purpose,” attorney Scott Wilhelm said on behalf of the students.
“The inanimate figure in the photograph is a wrestling dummy, which is owned by the Phillipsburg High School, and is used in our daily practices, and is used by most high school wrestling teams,” Wilhelm said on behalf of the students. “It is our understanding that the dummies are manufactured in only dark leather. In outfitting the wrestling dummy, we did not give any thought to the physical appearance of the dummy as anything other than an unidentified, generic wrestler – clothed in a Paulsboro T-shirt over a Kittatinny (Regional High School) singlet. Likewise, our dress was standard wrestling uniforms, and our poses were not premeditated, but rather, spontaneous gestures without any forethought.”
The teenagers said through their attorney that their judgment was “clouded” by their success and understood that some might have found them offensive, “however innocently intended” it was.
The New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association said in a statement Thursday that after reviewing the report filed by Phillipsburg High School, as well as the photo online, it chose not to allow the teens to participate in its individual tournament this weekend, citing unsportsmanlike conduct.
“As Executive Director, it is my obligation to take appropriate action when confronted with any flagrant violation of the Sportsmanship Rule,” NJSIAA Executive Director Steven J. Timko said. “The photograph violates the principles of good sportsmanship and is a flagrant violation of the NJSIAA Sportsmanship Rule.”
Timko said the photo shows a “fundamental disrespect” and uses “violent imagery that has no place in high school sports.”
Wilhelm said the wrestlers were disappointed by the decision – given, he said, that the principal had previously told them that while they would be disciplined, they still would be allowed to participate in the tournament.
“Now, for some reason – without any further explanation and despite our repeated, unanswered inquiries, the school has done an about-face,” Wilhelm said on behalf of the boys. “As the present-day leaders of our community and school district, we would have expected more.”
The state Division on Civil Rights is also looking at the case.
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