Andrew Johnson
Courtesy of the Johnson Family

New Jersey's Buena School District won't work again with referee Alan Maloney, who recently ruled that a black teen wrestler must cut his hair to compete

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December 27, 2018 10:45 AM

After a referee who oversaw a tournament at Buena Regional High School in New Jersey said that a black student must cut his dreadlocks in order to compete, the district’s superintendent never wants to work with him again.

David Cappuccio of Buena School District called an emergency board meeting on Wednesday night, according to a notice posted on the district’s website. It was prompted by the viral backlash to last week’s video of a trainer cutting the hair of 16-year-old wrestler Andrew Johnson.

The teen was forced by the referee — identified by multiple news outlets as Alan Maloney — to choose between the haircut and forfeiting his match. Maloney was reportedly acting under rules that stipulate wrestlers must not have hair past their earlobes or else wear a permitted hair cap.

But Maloney rejected Johnson’s hair covering right before the match and gave him 90 seconds to either cut his hair or forfeit, Johnson’s family has said. According to the Courier Post, Johnson’s covering was barred because it was not attached to headgear, as required by a fairly recent rule change.

The school board meeting on Wednesday led to the decision that the “the school district and its athletic teams will not compete in any contest officiated by this referee from this point forward,” Cappuccio told the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, CNN reports.

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“We have viewed the video footage that has gone viral and are deeply troubled by the embarrassment and humiliation our young student athlete endured,” said Cappuccio, according to CNN. “District administration has been working diligently around the clock for the past several days collecting as much info as possible about the sequence of events occurring this past December 19.”

According to a statement from Cappuccio posted on the district’s website, Maloney is not employed by Buena schools, so he does not have the power to fire him. The groups that assign referees, however, have said they will not assign him to any matches until further notice, according to the Associated Press.

Cappuccio reinforced to local TV station WPVI that Maloney “is done working with our district.” (Maloney has not responded to PEOPLE’s request for comment.)

While Johnson’s family did not speak during the meeting, their lawyer, Dominic Speziali, did voice their concerns.

“The blame here is on the referee,” Speziali said, CNN reports. “It’s still not clear to me why that had to happen, in that manner, to Andrew.”

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Neither Cappuccio nor Speziali immediately responded to PEOPLE’s request for comment.

Many people who live in the district voiced their support of Johnson at Wednesday’s meeting, WPVI reports.

“I came here tonight because I’m a wrestler and I wanted to defend that kid,” said one resident, Steve Martinelli. “What I saw made me sick to my stomach.”

Another attendee added, “It doesn’t matter if he was black, white, green or purple. It broke my heart to watch that young man stand there and be humiliated like that.”

According to a statement Speziali released on Monday on behalf of the Johnson family, Maloney was allegedly late to the match on Dec. 19 and missed weigh-ins, which the Johnsons said is normally when the determination of any rule violations takes place.

What’s more, “when he did evaluate Andrew, he [the referee] failed to raise any issues with the length of his hair,” Speziali contended.

“As the trainer is cutting Andrew’s hair in the middle of the gym, the referee is behind them directing her to keep cutting until he was satisfied with the length,” Speziali said.

Andrew had wrestled the weekend before with the same hair style “without issue,” according to his family’s statement, and he had asked to “be allowed to push his hair back as he did the weekend prior, but the referee again refused because ‘it wasn’t in its natural state.’ “

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Cappuccio, the superintendent, said in a previous statement that “no school/district staff member influenced the student into making this decision.”

“The staff and administration within the Buena Regional School District will continue to support and stand by all of our students and student-athletes,” Cappuccio said then. “In collaboration with the NJSIAA and its ongoing investigation in this matter, the district will take appropriate action as more details become available.”

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According to CNN, the New Jersey attorney general’s civil rights division is investigating.

Monday’s statement from the Johnsons also clarified that Andrew’s parents are still “are supportive of Andrew’s coaches and the team’s athletic trainer.”

“As we move forward, we are comforted by both the strength of Andrew’s character and the support he’s received from the community,” his parents said. “We will do all that we can to make sure that no student-athlete is forced to endure what Andrew experienced.”

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According to an October 2016 article in the Courier Post, the referee may have a history of racist behavior.

The Post reports that in March of that year, Maloney allegedly called a black referee, Preston Hamilton, the n-word during a small gathering of a group of officials. Maloney and Hamilton had worked together at a youth tournament earlier that day.

Hamilton told the paper that Maloney poked him in the chest while saying the epithet and, in response, Hamilton slammed him to the ground. Maloney told the outlet that while he didn’t remember the incident — there was alcohol present at the gathering — he agreed with witness accounts of his behavior.

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The New Jersey Wrestling Officials Association later ruled that it didn’t have the authority to fire Maloney over what happened. Its president said in a statement at the time: “We’re going to move forward from here and hopefully this thing has been resolved in the back of a lot of people’s minds.”

According to the Post, Maloney volunteered to pay for and participate in both an alcohol awareness and sensitivity training programs as punishment.

Andrew Johnson went on to win last Wednesday’s match but will not participate in his team’s match on Thursday to avoid the media attention, Speziali told WPVI. He will wrestle again later in the season.

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