The Sept. 14 arrest of John Turnbull, a local substitute teacher and coach, sparked an outcry among local students and parents. With his scheduled appearance next Thursday in Westfield Municipal Court, the rhetoric has increased.
Turnbull, the coach for Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School's boys' JV soccer team and Westfield High School's boys' varsity golf team, as well as a substitute teacher for the Scotch Plains-Fanwood School District, allegedly poured a glass of wine each for two 17-year-olds he took to dinner at the Brick Oven Restaurant on Quimby Street in Westfield, according to Westfield Police Capt. Clifford Aucher.
A patron at the restaurant contacted police, Aucher said, upon recognizing that the boys – members of Scotch Plains-Fanwood's JV soccer team – were not old enough to legally drink alcohol.
Officers charged Turnbull with "knowingly or purposefully" offering, serving or making available "an alcoholic beverage to a person under the legal age for consuming alcoholic beverages," according to the official summons complaint – a disorderly-persons offense punishable by up to six months in prison and a maximum fine of $1,000.
Turnbull has since been suspended from coaching or teaching at Scotch Plains-Fanwood schools pending the outcome of the case, Superintendent Margaret Hayes said in a telephone interview, and lacrosse coach and math teacher Ken Ellsworth was appointed by the Board of Education to serve as the substitute soccer coach.
Westfield Schools Superintendent Margaret Dolan did not return phone calls seeking comment. The incident, however, comes seven months after the arrest of Westfield fourth-grade teacher Brendan Hickey, who was found with less than 50 grams of marijuana during a motor vehicle stop on East Broad Street on Feb. 11. Hickey, then the hockey and girls lacrosse coach, was initially assigned to administrative duty, but ultimately returned to the classroom.
Turnbull, reached by phone on Saturday, said simply, "I'm not an animal." Contacted on Tuesday for a follow-up by this reporter, he declined to comment.
Over the course of 26 years, Turnbull has become a fixture of local sports. For Scotch Plains-Fanwood High School, in addition to coaching the boys junior varsity soccer team, he has served as a golf coach, regularly kept time for wrestling matches and basketball games, and frequently supervised ice hockey practices that often don't start until 9 p.m., according to varsity soccer coach Tom Breznitsky.
His involvement wasn't limited to the athletic fields. Indeed, Sept. 14 was not the first time that Turnbull treated students to a meal.
"Players from his JV teams that have made honor roll, he's taken them to dinner," Breznitsky said. "He's taken kids to England to see Chelsea soccer games. Some of the fathers have gone along with him."
The mention of parents' presence, however, points to the concerns that inherently arise from incidents like the one reported Sept. 14 – an interaction involving alcohol, teenagers, an adult more than twice their age, and the police.
"I'm not really that upset about it," said Dan Ray, as he watched his son, a junior on the soccer team, compete against Plainfield High School on Tuesday afternoon. "If it were my kid, I would want to know what brought it to that point. If I was able to see it was a spontaneous thing, it wouldn't be that big of a deal. But if I felt it was more than that, then I would be upset."
He firmly emphasized, however, that in this particular incident, he felt that Turnbull did not have "ill intent," and that the incident represented simply "one lapse in judgment," adding, "I don't think anyone should be judged after nearly 30 years of productive input into the community – everything that he's done for 30 years – from one lapse of judgment. Everybody goes through life with the opportunity to make mistakes."
Breznitsky insisted that Turnbull's heavy involvement with high school sports and athletes stems simply from "a genuine liking for kids. Anyone in education, you have to like the kids. John, he just enjoyed the company of the boys. There were never any thoughts or any doubts that it was anything else."
Some parents, however, were more critical. "I am so glad that a parent stepped up," said Michele Valian, whose son is a freshman on the soccer team. "I would do the same thing. I would've called the police. He's a man in authority. To give alcohol to underage children, it's not right." She added, "I'm very disappointed."
Many spectators at the game, however, expressed support for Turnbull. "He was an institution," said Scotch Plains resident Cheryl Hankin, whose son is a junior on the soccer team. "I think that the boys respected his experience and his expertise. Between Turnbull and Brez, they were soccer."
Pete Richter, a soccer referee whose grandson is a freshman on the team, said that on the field, "my impression was he's fairly strict. He takes no bull. He was a very good coach as far as I was concerned."