PHILLIPSBURG, N.J. - New Jersey officials say they've launched a criminal investigation into a controversial photograph that landed several Phillipsburg High School wrestlers in hot water.
It's an image that's stirred public backlash. In the photograph, seven Phillipsburg High School wrestlers pose with a dark colored dummy wearing a Kittatiny Regional High School singlet under a Paulsboro High School t-shirt and hanging from the neck by a rope.
Thursday night the wrestlers shared their side of the story through their attorney.
"We're here to address some of the concerns and allegations," said Scott Wilhelm, an attorney with Winegar, Wilhelm, Glynn & Roemersma.
Andrew Horun, Jimmy Schuitema, Tim Hinkle, Broderick Bupivi, Daniel Wissing, Tyler Petchonka and Garrett Wolfinger are the student athletes who posed with the dummy strung up with a rope. An eighth teen, Tyler Agens, took the controversial shot. Their attorney gave no explanation was for the pointed hoods or paddle in the picture, he says when it was snapped earlier in the month it was meant to promote team spirit and the best season Phillipsburg has seen in about 40 years.
"Our success may have clouded our thinking about how our actions, however innocently intended, may be perceived as harmful by others."
They said the wrestling dummy in the picture is only made in darker leather, and the group wasn't trying to communicate anything racial with the dummy or their poses.
"When we spontaneously set the scene and posed for the photograph, our sole purpose was to promote school spirit and portray our wrestling team as victor over two of our arch rivals, Paulsboro High School and Kittatiny High School," read Wilhelm.
Officials at both Kittatiny and Paulsboro High say they hope folks can learn something from this, and the wrestlers' apology has been accepted.
"We know, we feel, we heard and we know that this is something they're not happy about either," shared Dr. Walter Quint, Superintendent of Paulsboro Schools.
"This isn't going to bear any weight on who we are and what we do moving forward," added Kittatiny Regional School District Superintendent Craig Hutcheson. "They've recognized, apologized, and we're all going to move forward at this point in time."
The seven students and the teen who snapped the photo were suspended from school for three days, and banned from this weekend's individual state wrestling tournament, something the athletes say they're not happy about.
"When the photograph first surfaced, Principal Greg Troxell assured each of us individually in separate face-to-face meetings, and confirmed to our parents that while we would be disciplined in some manner, we absolutely were not going to be suspended from the wrestling team, and we were going to be permitted to wrestle in the individual championships," explained Wilhelm. "Now, for some reason, without further explanation, and despite our repeated unanswered inquiries, the school has done an about-face."
But the teen's troubles may be far from over. After Phillipsburg Police and the Attorney General's Office called, Warren County Prosecutor Richard Burke says a criminal investigation has been started to figure out if any laws have been broken.
"We look at the facts and see what they are," explained Burke. "If there is something that violates the bias crime statute then of course we would pursue that."
The state organization that oversees high school sports in New Jersey released a statement saying the picture clearly violated the sportsmanship rule and that it shows "a fundamental disrespect for an opponent, using violent imagery that has no place in high school sports."
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