MOUNT CARMEL — The Mount Carmel Township Police Department and Mount Carmel Area School District are continuing independent investigations into an alleged hazing incident involving members of the football team.
Earlier this week, the school district announced that the team would forfeit the remainder of its games due to an ongoing hazing investigation that allegedly took place off campus.
During Thursday’s monthly school board, district solicitor Edward Greco told the audience consisting mostly of cheerleaders, football players and parents that a tip was received via a ChildLine call and that it is the duty and obligation of the district to investigate all allegations.
Reading from a prepared statement, Greco said any allegation of hazing must be taken seriously, noting that the topic is listed in the student handbook, which is distributed to students and signed by parents.
“While we would like to say the investigation by the Mount Carmel Area School District is completed, it is not the case,” Greco stated. “The (district) is determined to continue with its investigation and, if necessary, may call in an outside agency to expand the investigation and conduct interviews to determine the existence, duration and commencement of any acts, which could constitute hazing.”
Greco revealed that the decision to cancel the remainder of the season was done follow discussions with the coaching staff, Athletic Director Greg Sacavage and administration. A board vote was not taken because it did not fall “within the realm of the school board.”
He added, “The cancellation of the remaining games on the schedule was not an easy course of action, and clearly, not a popular one. However, given the seriousness of the situation and the unfinished investigation, at this time, it was appropriate, given the circumstances.”
Mount Carmel Area School Board Director Tony Mazzatesta disagreed, stating that cancelling the season “was not the best solution.” Mazzatesta, who is the father of a senior cheerleader, felt better solutions existed.
“I believe in innocent until proven guilty,” Mazzatesta remarked, which brought applause from the audience. “I would like to have it investigated and not impact the folks not involved in the alleged hazing.
Ryleigh Geary told the board that she has dedicated the past four years to the cheerleading squad and that her final season was “ripped out” from under her, even though she had nothing to do with the alleged incident.
“This isn’t just me. This is every other innocent senior cheerleader, band member and football player,” Geary said. “You’re not just taking away just some high school football game, it’s so much more than that to us.”
Geary acknowledged that punishment is needed, but asked how the district could punish “so many people” due to a “few bad actions.”
“I really hope that you all understand what you’re taking from us. And it’s just not seniors, it’s our family and community,” she concluded.
Reed Witkoski, a senior captain of the football team, said football has been one of the most important aspects of his life.
“It’s a very hard thing to go through. The seniors and my teammates wanted to end the season on our own terms. To not have that opportunity — I’m deeply pained by that,” he said. “I do believe that a major lesson was learned. I can speak on behalf of the whole team, the lesson was learned. I do not agree with the extent of the lesson. And I urge you to reconsider.”
His father, Jeff, and mother, Karen, then spoke, with Jeff stating his son has been criminally and civilly accused of wrongdoing.
Witkoski said on Oct. 6 he was contacted by a school resource officer who requested he respond to the high school. He said many opinions, misunderstandings and miscommunication have occurred since, noting that miscommunication can make “things crumble.”
Witkoski claimed no one during the season sat down with the football team to discuss hazing and that the investigation is “riddled with holes.”
“I have to look out civilly. I have to look out criminally for accusations made against my son. I will enjoy every single second of it watching someone pay for it,” he said.
Witkoski then asked what acts led to the football team to be placed on probation.
Superintendent Pete Cheddar told Witkoski that Mount Carmel players did not shake the hands of Shamokin players following last year’s Shamokin Coal Bucket game, and that “multiple” personnel fouls occurred during the Southern Columbia football game and an unspecified basketball game.
Cheddar said the district provided their version of events for the Shamokin and Southern Columbia games to the District 4 committee, but those “didn’t work out.”
Football player Michael Farronato told the board that the team has “each other’s backs” and asked the board how it expects players to “turn our backs on each other” and “turn one of ourselves in.”
“How can you expect us to just turn on each other like that?” he said.
Heather Owens told the board she reported an assault against her son in the football locker room last year, claiming district administration failed to take action.
“Nobody saw anything, but the entire team was there,” she said of the alleged assault. “This is an administration issue. If the administration did their jobs — last year — my kid wouldn’t be losing, again, another year of football.”
Greco said the board is forming a committee to discuss an educational format plan to be put in place to enable the district and community to heal.
In addition to Mazzatesta, attending the meeting were Directors Robert Muldowney, Edward Zack, James Britt, William Brecker, Jose Gonzalo, Cheryl Latorre and Donna James, who participated virtually. Director Joseph Zanella was absent.
COAL TOWNSHIP — Students of Little Indians Daycare LLC, located on the second floor of the Salem United Church of Christ, showed their excitement during a special presentation by members of Maine Fire Co. on fire prevention.
The hour-long event, which provided information and instruction on basic firefighting, encouraged participation and interaction from the children. It was both informative and fun.
Daycare director Angela Combs, who also teaches the preschool class, had her students singing a special song about firefighting.
“We have an employee here, Kayla Hoffman, who works with the Maine Fire Co., along with her fiancée. She helped coordinate this event for us today. The kids are really looking forward to it, they’re very excited. We’ve been going over fire safety tips at home, such as not playing with matches,” explained Combs.
Hoffman, teacher of the two-year-old class, said that she was happy to be able to help arrange the firefighting event.
“Today, our firefighters will be talking to the children about fire safety,” she said.
Danielle Griffiths, who serves as manager of the daycare center, expressed her appreciation toward the fire company for their willingness to participate in the instructional event for her young students.
“I’d like to thank them for coming here today to teach our children and for all they do here in our local community,” Griffiths said, and added, “We set up this special event for Fire Prevention Week. Today, the children will learn about fires, how to prevent them, what to do during a fire, how a fire truck operates, firefighting gear and what firefighters do.”
At 9:30 a.m. Thursday, the group of 11 young students filed out of the classroom accompanied by their teachers, wearing makeshift firefighting helmets made of red construction paper with their first names written on the front. They approached the fire engine where they were welcomed by three uniformed members of the Maine Fire Co. — firefighter/engineer Jim Zablosky, Lt. Brian Williams and firefighter Ciera Zimmerman.
“Hopefully, the kids can take something helpful back with them today to stay safe in their homes,” Zablosky said.
Williams said that the fire companies typically do a lot of prevention events at the schools but that instruction has been scaled back due to COVID-19 restrictions.
Zimmerman provided most of the instruction to the students, including a tour of the fire engine with its gear and hoses.
“We connect our big hose to the fire hydrant, like the one right there on the corner, and that gives us the water we need to fight the fire,” Zimmerman said to the students.
“I like fire trucks,” said young Mia Bellinger, who then asked if she could sit in the driver’s seat, which the crew allowed. One by one, each of the happy students then took turns sitting at the wheel of the fire engine, pretending to drive it.”
The students then proceeded to go back into their classroom, where Zimmerman donned her firefighting gear, from boots to helmet, explaining what each piece is used for.
“We have a lot of gear to keep us safe whenever we go into a building that’s on fire,” she told them.
DEN-MAR GARDENS — Much of Thursday night’s Mount Carmel Borough Council meeting was spent discussing a possible remedy to a fire official request regarding the paving of sidewalks.
Rich Zinda, vice president of the Mount Carmel Rescue Squad, submitted a letter to council asking that sidewalks adjacent to the squad building be paved over due to their cracked and uneven surfaces.
“It’s really in bad shape,” Councilman Robert Barrett said of the location, which also is used as a polling place. “People should be able to walk around. That’s a busy place.”
Council President Robert Shirmer said Zinda appeals to council every year for a fix to the problem.
“I have a feeling that macadam is going to look fantastic for a couple of months, then ...” deteriorate quickly, Councilman Clement Plisiewicz Jr. said. “I’m not against paving it, but ... what’s underneath that? What if the (base) is crumbled and cracked?”
Council then discussed whether it should look into securing about $50,000 — not just for paving, but for replacement of the sidewalks in the area.
“Could we do it with SEDA-COG money,” Plisiewicz asked. “I don’t see why we can’t.”
That sum likely could cover 150 feet of sidewalk on Second Street and about 75 feet on Walnut Street, council said.
“It’s a lot of money, but what are you going to do?” said Vice President Leroy Moser Jr., adding that prices are increasing for services as well as materials.
Council reportedly will contact Betsy Lockwood, manager of project development/grants for SEDA-Council of Governments, for more information.
If the borough moves forward with the project, it won’t get underway until next year.
In other news, Shirmer reported that a plumber for Turkey Hill stores in the region called in to compliment the borough’s sewer authority crew who “went above and beyond” to help him locate a blockage caused by paper towels and other matter in the local store’s sewer lateral.
The clog forced the closure of the Turkey Hill for about four days, Shirmer said.
Plisiewicz added that the borough crew did not work on private property but did help the plumber locate the clog, employed a “vac truck” and flushed the line.
Shirmer said the plumber relayed his gratitude and noted that municipalities usually are not so helpful to him when he has a store with issues.
In action items, council rolled through its consent resolution and approved the following items that it had discussed Monday:
• Approved a pair of invoices from CES Engineering LLC regarding the demolition of buildings at 37 and 41 S. Locust St.
• Awarded a $2,800 contract to Ziegert’s Tree Service for trimming 22 trees on Oak Street.
• Approved the use of the borough’s soccer field for a community meet and greet on Saturday, Oct. 31. The borough will hold a neighborhood Halloween party from 5 to 8 p.m. and attendees are advised to wear masks and gloves, said Mayor Philip Cimino.
• Accepted the resignation of Alan Matzura and Melissa Katch from the planning board. Plisiewicz said the planning commission now is down three members and applications will be accepted to fill those spots.
• Approved the purchase of Informant Technologies Inc. software for the code enforcement department.
• Council voted 6-0 to approve the following action items, which were new additions to the agenda.
• Hiring a full-time streets worker at $15 per hour.
• Granting a 30-day modified work schedule for employee Corey Yeager.
• Paying the first installment of $1,250 for two months of grant-writing work by Derrick Backer.
• Submitting an estimate of $117,000 for a grant to help pay for the Oak Street Pocket Park project through SEDA-COG.
• Advertising for a special meeting to apply for a grant/loan through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Tabled was adoption of new rates for the Pennsylvania Municipal Health Insurance Cooperative. More information is needed for an informed decision, council said.
Councilman Ed Fegley arrived late to the meeting and did not vote on the agenda items. Votes were cast by Councilmen Jack Spade, Kevin Powell, Barrett, Moser, Shirmer and Plisiewicz. Borough Manager John Bucanelli was absent.
COAL TOWNSHIP — Two roommates from Coal Township are accused of stealing a 2003 Car Mate utility trailing containing roofing material from a Springfield backyard owned by Police Chief Edward Purcell.
Brian Austin and Michael Wright, both 40, and of 1149 W. Arch St., Coal Township, have each been charged by Patrolman Kevin Malukas with misdemeanors of theft (two counts), criminal conspiracy and receiving stolen property.
During an investigation into an abandon trailer near the residence on Sept. 3, Purcell identified the trailer as the one stolen from his property between Aug. 24 and 28. The trailer did not have a registration plate and appeared to be freshly painted with black paint, according to Patrolman Cody Rebuck.
After the trailer was seized, Purcell and Rebuck returned to the residence, and sought and received permission from Austin to search the property. The officers found multiple pieces of roofing material, specifically tin siding, that Purcell said was on the trailer during the time of the theft, the criminal complaint states.
Austin claimed the materials belonged to his landlord and was unaware of when or how it had gotten to the location. After being questioned about his demeanor, Austin advised that Wright had arrived at the residence with the trailer and unloaded the materials into a garage.
Rebuck and Patrolman Michael Menapace located Wright, who was wanted out of Columbia County for unrelated incidents, in a room above the garage. Purcell, the alleged victim, then questioned Wright regarding the roofing materials. Wright denied knowing anything about the materials, adding that the landlord likely placed the items in the location, the complaint states.
During a subsequent interview at the Coal Township Police Station, Wright told Rebuck that Austin had in fact picked him up with a truck with an attached trailer containing the roofing material. Wright said Austin told him the materials belonged to the landlord.
Austin later claimed that he and Wright spray painted the truck as part of an agreement between Wright and his “friend” in exchange for borrowing the trailer to pick up a dirt bike.
HARRISBURG — Data released from the Department of Health states 43 residents of Mountain View: A Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, Coal Township, have died from COVID-19. It also lists 176 residents of the facility and 84 staff members as having contracted the virus.
Mountain View Administrator Kelli Martz said Monday in a notification letter to families that the facility had two active resident and eight active staff member cases of COVID-19.
The Department of Health announced Thursday it had identified an additional 1,598 cases of COVID-19 across the state in a 24-hour period, bringing the statewide total to 177,520 cases since the pandemic began.
A total of 240,220 tests were administered in between Oct. 8 and Wednesday, with 9,370 tests coming back positive for the virus.
Twenty-one new deaths were reported since Wednesday, bringing the statewide total to 8,432 virus-related fatalities. Of those deaths, 5,585 have occurred in residents from nursing or personal care facilities.
Over two million Pennsylvanians have tested negative for the virus since Department of Health tracking began.
A new COVID-19 testing clinic will open today in the parking lot of Polar Tech, 1017 West Valley Avenue, Elysburg, after state officials have identified a notable increase of COVID-19 cases in Northumberland County.
“Since the beginning of September, we have seen an increase of 598 cases in Northumberland County, which gives us significant cause for concern,” state Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine said. “The testing site will be open to anyone who feels they need a test. It is important that even people with no symptoms who test positive isolate to stop the spread of COVID-19.”
The Department of Health has signed a contract with AMI Expeditionary Healthcare (AMI) to provide testing in communities in need across Pennsylvania, according to a press release.
“This week, Northumberland has the highest percent-positivity in the state at 8.6%. This is down from a percent-positivity of 9.2% the previous week,” the press release states.
Testing will be conducted at the Ralpho Township location from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. each day from today until Tuesday.
Up to 440 patients can be tested per day and testing will be conducted on a first-come, first-serve basis at no cost to participants. Patients are not required to show any COVID-19 symptoms in order to be tested. No appointment is necessary, but patients should bring photo identification or insurance card.
State officials estimate the turnaround time for testing results is two to seven days.