Collingswood Schools, Prosecutor ‘Take Ownership’ in ‘Controversy’, Refine Discipline Roles


School officials will refer ‘the most serious of crimes’ to law enforcement, but otherwise have ‘complete authority to exercise their discretion’ before reporting, according to a joint statement from all parties.

By Matt Skoufalos

The Collingswood school district is no longer expected to refer universally its discipline issues to local police for investigation, except in dealing with “the most serious of crimes,” according to a joint letter issued today by local law enforcement, government, school representatives, and the Office of the Camden County Prosecutor (CCPO).

The school district will continue to follow the statewide Memorandum of Agreement (MoA) outlined by the New Jersey Department of Education and Office of the Attorney General for such instances, but “in all other matters, school officials have complete authority to exercise their discretion” under the rules of the MoA “before deciding to report the matter to law enforcement.”

It’s an accord in which both sides assumed “ownership and responsibility” for the execution of a discipline policy that Prosecutor Mary Eva Colallilo had said a day earlier that her office, in hindsight, had no authority to enforce.

Tuesday’s letter describes the events as a matter in which “better communication…could have avoided the resulting controversy.” Both parties agreed their “disagreements should be handled through face-to-face discussions rather than unilateral press statements.”

No misconduct, no investigation

The description that both Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley and Superintendent Scott Oswald used for the entire affair was “miscommunication.”

“The Collingswood folks all believe they heard one thing,” Maley said. “The prosecutor’s office says that’s not what they said. That miscommunication is what led to the policy being changed.”

At the initial meeting May 25, the CCPO was represented by Angela Seixas, Section Chief of its Special Prosecutions Unit, which investigates official misconduct. However, no one from the school district is or was being investigated for wrongdoing, and the meeting was not prompted by any specific incident, Oswald said.

“There were some minor concerns that really should have been just handled by a pretty informal sit-down,” the superintendent said. “That should have been the purpose of that meeting, and I don’t know that that meeting went down that path.”

In that meeting, Collingswood Police Chief Kevin Carey described having been “explicitly instructed by the CCPO to respond to all incidents in schools that could be criminal and investigate the same…as minor as a simple name-calling incident that the school would typically handle internally.” Carey said police were also told to contact the New Jersey Division of Child Protection and Permanency (DCP&P) “on just about every incident at the school.”

Instead of following those orders, everyone “on the local side” could have “knocked down doors” to get clarification on the new standard of enforcement before implementing it, Maley said.

“A fiasco like this takes more than just one hand,” he said.

Oswald said he left the meeting Tuesday with a clear understanding that lines of communication are open between the district and the prosecutor’s office, and that in the future, “I should pick up the phone to verify what I heard is what was said.

“My position prior was if I’m told to do it, then I’m going to do it,” he said. “My position now is that I’m going to verify. If there’s a change perceived, I’m going to get it in writing.”

Oswald characterized the results of the five-hour meeting as “everybody probably not getting as much as they wanted, and giving more than they wanted.

“Now that we’ve all been in the same room, everybody had an opportunity to express their version of what happened, and as a group we might all have to agree to disagree on some of it,” he said.

“We’re comfortable enough, having lived through this mess, that we can all say we’re first and foremost committed to doing what’s best for the kids, and that we never want to go through this again,” Oswald said. He said Prosecutor Mary Eva Colallilo is “committed to doing the right thing.

“She is genuine, and I believe that,” he said. “When I hear something in the future that isn’t quite aligned with what’s in writing, I can call her directly. And I think that’s healthy.”

Oswald also said parents in the district should know that school administration has been “on the side of their kids since day one.

“We haven’t just sat back and taken this,” he said. “We were trying to work through this the entire time.”

Maley said that the mayor’s office, school district, board of education, and police department have been “pretty much on the same page all along,” and that he was confident in the community’s interagency coordination in the future. He said all three Collingswood entities are still setting up a public forum, but that the prosecutor’s office won’t attend.

“Their involvement ended today,” he said.

Maley and Oswald both said that no unnecessary police reports were filed as a result of the altered reporting directives, and that no parents have pressed charges in any incidents. One family’s case had been referred to children’s services, but Maley said the matter was closed.

Not about brownies

The letter also made special mention of the “brownie incident” so widely reported by and others, in which police were called to investigate remarks made by a third-grade student at Tatem Elementary School. It describes the student’s comments as “much more incendiary than what has been reported,” and notes that the matter remains under investigation by law enforcement.

“The county and local law enforcement support that the school called the police,” Maley said. “What happened is not what’s being reported. Folks are looking at it, that’s all. And it’s reasonable.”

Oswald said that the stories that have emerged from that incident “couldn’t be further from the truth.

“It wasn’t a comment about a brownie at all in terms of offending an individual,” he said. “It was a comment that immediately rose to the level of an HIB [Harrassment, Intimidation, and Bullying]  investigation.”

The superintendent acknowledged that third-grade students can “say things that need to be a learning experience,” but concluded that school staff “did absolutely the right thing by calling the police.”

Collingswood Board of Education President David Routzahn commented that “not only did administrators act properly, but they acted in a manner consistent with ensuring the health and safety of our students.

“We can’t discuss details of it, but I heard for the first time today what was actually said,” Routzahn said. “It is, as it says in the statement, much more incendiary than what is being reported. I was glad that the prosecutor’s office acknowledged that it was handled properly.”

Despite the matter being investigated, Routzahn said he was hopeful that the district and the affected families could “recognize what was said, that it was wrong, and move forward from there.

“All our administrators have a fairly long track record of not trying to make targets of the kids,” Routzahn said.

For more coverage of this issue, see the following related stories:

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