Lawrence Township mayor and police department address bias incident

Scott Jacobs
Plantlife start to turn with the fall weather at Colonial Lake Park in Lawrence Township on Nov 2.

Mayor Christopher Bobbitt, Superintendent of Schools Ross Kasun and Police Chief Brian Caloiaro want to send a clear message to Lawrence Township residents that intolerant behavior has no place in the community or in the schools.

Their message follows in the wake of an alleged bias incident that occurred at the Lawrence High School-Steinert High School football game at Lawrence High School on Oct. 18. It involved two Lawrence High School students and several Lawrence Middle School students.

“I want to reiterate, as mayor, hate has no home here. This is a ‘taught’ bigotry. It is disturbing to me that it continues to happen,” Bobbitt said of the incident. He spoke at a press conference at the Lawrence Township Municipal Building on Oct. 22.

“Intolerant behavior has no place in our schools or our community,” Kasun added. He spoke at the press conference, along with Bobbitt, Chief Caloiaro and police Lt. Joseph Lech IV.

The incident began when two 17-year-old Lawrence High School students of Indian descent allegedly taunted several black Lawrence Middle School students and used the “n-word,” police said. One boy allegedly urinated on a girl.

The boys, whose names are being withheld because they are juveniles, were each charged with four counts of bias intimidation and four counts of harassment. One boy was additionally charged with two counts of lewdness, police said.

The boys, who were arrested on Oct. 19, were released to their parents’ custody. The incident is still under investigation, and additional arrests may be made, police said.

Meanwhile, Lawrence Township officials shared more details of the alleged bias incident, and outlined the chain of events and officials’ responses at the Oct. 22 press conference.

Caloiaro said Bobbitt called him after the football game to ask whether he had heard about a bias incident that allegedly occurred during the football game.

Caloiaro said he checked with police officers. The only incident reported was a juvenile who was taken into custody for under-aged drinking and drug possession.

The police chief said that when he checked his email account early the next morning, the mayor had emailed him a link to a Facebook post. He said he saw a “very inflammatory” post from the mother of one of the victims.

In the Facebook post, the mother said her daughter and her friends had been ridiculed and mocked by upperclassmen who used the “n-word,” Caloiaro said.

Caloiaro said he assigned Lt. Lech, who supervises the investigation division, and three detectives to look into the matter. Caloiaro said that he and a detective went to the victim’s home to assure the family that the police department would do all that it could for them.

At the press conference, Lech said police determined that the incident occurred during the third quarter of the football game. It happened in the auxiliary overflow bleachers on the Lawrence High School side of the football field.

Detectives went to the homes of each of the four victims to interview them and to offer help, Lech said. All agreed to meet detectives mid-morning on Oct. 19 at the police department to give formal statements about the incident, he said.

Once it had been determined that it was a bias incident, the Mercer County Prosecutor’s Office was called in to help with the investigation, Lech said. A detective from the prosecutor’s office was assigned to the case.

The detectives investigated several tips from the community, and two videos were sent to the police department that showed a portion of the event, Lech said. Based on the evidence, police arrested the two boys.

Meanwhile, Kasun said the school district is taking the allegations “very seriously.” The students want everyone to know that it was an isolated incident, he said.

“This is not who we are. As a school district, diversity is our greatest strength. I know the students will rise above this,” Kasun said, adding that the incident is being used as a “teachable moment” in the schools.

“The students are disappointed in how (the incident) is being portrayed. It really looks like the student body is intolerant. I don’t see it,” Kasun said.

The Lawrence Township Public Schools student population is about 40% white, 20% black, 20% Latino and 20% Asian/Indian, Kasun said.

Many people in the community wanted to take vengeance on the boys, Bobbitt said. One of the challenges for Lawrence Township is to show there is another way, he said.

It begins with the professionalism that the Lawrence Township Police Department has shown and that the school district has shown in educating the students, the mayor said.

“For me, I want to remind people of our commonalities and the good that describes us,” Bobbitt said.