‘Hanging’ black puppet at school: Clark mayor goes to Plainfield to apologize
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PLAINFIELD — Speaking with a "heavy heart," the mayor of Clark on Monday apologized during a Plainfield City Council meeting following the discovery of a black puppet found hanging in a Clark high school classroom.
"What I am here to say is for who were offended — the people of your team, your city and school district — I, the Township Council and the people of Clark humbly apologize. I do not honestly know if what was done was done with malice. What I do know is that it is being investigated," said Mayor Sal Bonaccorso.
The puppet was found by the Plainfield High School's girls basketball team, which had been asked to change in an art classroom at Arthur L. Johnson High School.
The parent of a student who takes the puppet making class claimed to New Jersey 101.5 that the puppet was supposed to be a likeness of basketball player LeBron James and was not intended to be racist.
The NJSIAA, the governing body that regulations high school athletics in the state, has asked both school districts to investigate. "We also have notified the state’s New Jersey Division on Civil Rights in the Attorney General’s Office and will keep them updated,” the organization said in a statement.
Union County Prosecutor’s Office spokesman Mark Spivey said that office’s bias unit was aware of the matter and in communication with the Clark Police Department and Clark Public School District regarding it.
The five-term mayor of the Union County township told New Jersey 101.5 on Tuesday that he was moved to apologize in person after a meeting with Assemblyman Jerry Green, a longtime black lawmaker from Plainfield who often has spoken in Clark schools.
Bonaccorso said that his only job as mayor is to make sure Clark is looked upon in the brightest light possible and after their conversation it was important that Plainfield residents know that they are welcome and will be treated with respect.
The Clark and Plainfield school districts have said they will investigate Saturday's incident.
Bonaccorso said he was at the game because his daughter plays on the Clark team. He said the art room and not a locker room was used by the team because that has become a custom for both the home and visiting teams. He wasn't sure why the teams don't use locker rooms.
Bonaccorso said that if it is discovered that the puppet was hung with malice, those responsible will be fully prosecuted.
"I don't think the issue is whether the puppet was made," Bonaccorso said. "I think if the puppet was sitting on a shelf no one would have said anything about it. I think the fact that the string was around the neck was from where the issue came. Again, it was not a noose. I don't know if there's more being made out of this than there should be."
"I don't know in my heart if it was done with malice. I don't want to believe that of any of our students. I can't think for every student there," Bonaccorso said.
During his address to the Plainfield City Council, he said it was an "isolated incident. It's a loving community. We care about people."
Bonaccorso said he is also concerned that the discovery was not mentioned by anyone on the Plainfield team during the game.
"The one thing that is baffling to me is when the coach first discovered this, which I was told was in the very beginning when the room was opened to the Plainfield team, why didn't he say anything? Throughout the whole day he never said a word until he got on a bus and went home and started posting on soclal media? I'm concerned about that," he said.
The mayor said he was told that security video showed the Plainfield team in the hallway as "smiling, happy and acting like normal teenage girls. It wasn't like anyone was crying ... so I was happy to hear that."
A picture of the puppet was first posted on Facebook by Andre Payton at 1:16 p.m. on Saturday. According to the Clark girls team basketball team schedule, the Plainfield game was scheduled for 11 a.m.
Payton told New Jersey 101.5 he is "an employee of the district" but his connection to the girls basketball team was not clear. He referred all other questions to the superintendent's office.
Contact reporter Dan Alexander at Dan.Alexander@townsquaremedia.com