A half-dozen parents of current and former football players at Tuesday's Board of Education meeting accused Oyster Bay-East Norwich High School’s football coaches of physically and verbally mistreating players, and they said the coaches used racial slurs.
The parents also said they were frustrated that although they had shared their concerns with administrators last year, and an assistant coach was fired, the verbal abuse continued, and the district did not fully address their complaints.
They asked that the head coach, Joe Knoll, who has worked for the district since 2011, be held accountable.
The only black player on the team, senior Jean-Baptiste Yahve, who is of Haitian descent, was the target of physical and verbal mistreatment by an assistant coach whom the players called Coach Westin, parents said. Superintendent Dr. Laura Seinfeld said she could not give the coach’s full name, explaining that it was a personnel issue.
At the meeting, parents said that a student of Middle Eastern descent, whom they did not identify, was also verbally harassed. His parents, they said, declined to file a complaint.
Elliott Garrison, an OBHS alumnus, the head of the district’s Athletic Hall of Fame Committee and an OBHS football coach in the early 1980s, attended the meeting. He said that another boy, an immigrant from Iran, had quit the football team three times in 2018 because of harassment.
Yahve’s mother, Marie Dorcelian, spoke of the anxiety that she felt seeing her son upset and crying during football. In 2017, she said, “My son was slapped in the face” [by Westin], adding that after Westin was fired the problems did not end for her son. “The head coach mistreated Jean-Baptiste worse,” she said.
She tried to get district administrators to help her son, she said, but they did not.
Seinfeld said that she and school officials have reviewed parents’ allegations. “We will restructure the program and move in a new direction,” she said.
Pressed for details, Seinfeld said, “I cannot discuss this more now, but we do not condone any violations against the dignity of our students.” She added that the football coaching position is evaluated and renewed annually.
Parents of five football players met in December with administrators, including OBHS Principal Sharon Lasher, Athletic Director Kevin Trentowski and Seinfeld. Dorcelian was not among them. The parents, who were at Tuesday’s meeting, said they did not receive help.
“It’s just sickening that this racism is going on in 2019,” said Sean O’Toole, president of the Oyster Bay-Bayville Generals, a youth football program. His son, Sean, was the high school team’s quarterback this season.
Garrison, the Hall of Fame head, said that he had never seen this type of problem during his time at the school. He said he worried about the negative impacts that the alleged harassment could have on the high school’s athletic program. The district should have fired the head coach when the incidents were first reported, he said, adding, “I don’t understand why the school didn’t do that.”
Rodney Hill, an African-American parent of a former OBHS football player, said he complained to the athletic director in 2014 about how players were treated differently. Although his son had helped the team to victory, his name was left out of the reporting in Newsday, Hill said.
It’s “the responsibility of the winning coach to notify the papers, and the boy’s name was never printed in the paper,” O’Toole said.
Hill said that after hearing that a second black student had faced mistreatment, he is hesitant to allow his younger son, who will soon be in middle school, to take part in the football program because he does not want him to face prejudice as well. “There is just not a mentor that students can go to who they can identify with,” he said.
During the 2018 football season, players discussed the disparity in treatment, O’Toole said, adding that he believes that because his son is white and had his father’s support to play football, his experiences on the team were problem-free. That was not the case for the two immigrant student-athletes, he said.
He added that parents and the football players found it difficult to contact Knoll. “It doesn’t make sense that the school has a head coach that doesn’t even have a cell phone,” he said. “He’s that unreachable to the team.”
School board trustees appeared solemn as they listened to the complaints.
Seinfeld said that the district is “committed to protecting all students, regardless of the color of their skin.”
Trentowski was contacted several times and did not return calls, nor did Knoll.