The family of an African American student plans to file a lawsuit for a photo that surfaced of members of a high school wrestling team that appeared to simulate a lynching.
The photo, which surfaced online last month, shows seven white teens wearing Phillipsburg High School wrestling attire posing with a black tackling dummy in a Paulsboro High School wrestling shirt hanging from a noose. Two of the boys have the hoods on their sweatshirts fixed into points. One of the boys is holding a paddle.
On Monday, an attorney for an African American student on the Phillipsburg wrestling team told NBC10 that “intent to sue” notices were sent to the school district, Warren County as well as the individual students in the photo. The attorney says the student and his family felt “clearly threatened and intimidated by the photo and the actions of the students.”
Paulsboro and Phillipsburg are longtime wrestling powerhouses and rivals. Phillipsburg, in northwest New Jersey, is a community of 15,000 where about 85 percent of the population is white. Paulsboro, south of Philadelphia, has about 6,000 residents -- more than one-third of them black.
The Phillipsburg wrestlers who posed in the photo were pulled from a state tournament after the photo surfaced. Phillipsburg High School officials would not say why the wrestlers were pulled from competition, telling The Express-Times of Easton it was a "private student matter.''
An attorney for the banned wrestlers later released a statement claiming that the boys only intended to “show school spirit.”
In a prepared statement, Scott Wilhelm said the Phillipsburg High School students didn't think what they were doing could be seen as insensitive and they were sorry for offending anyone. The boys sat at a table while the statement was read, but didn't comment.
"We did not intend to disparage anyone," the boys' lawyer said. "We are truly sorry for any harm we may have caused."
The statement noted that the wrestling dummy in the photo is used in daily practices and, as far as they know, is only manufactured in dark leather.
"In outfitting the wrestling dummy, we did not give any thought to the physical appearance of the dummy as anything other than an unidentified generic wrestler," Wilhelm said.
Phillipsburg school officials made a statement Thursday saying that they take the case seriously and "took the necessary actions to hold accountable those involved" but would not disclose the punishments because they are "student issues."