Fistfight turns ‘Project Graduation' into nightmare

| 28 Sep 2011 | 02:14

    WEST MILFORD-A rowdy graduate turned the high school's annual Project Graduation event, June 24-25, into a debacle. Part of the festivities consisted of 240 graduates and 20-30 teachers and parent-chaperones taking a cruise on the Hudson River, according to Glenn Kamp, director of education for the West Milford School Department. Before the night was over, the cruise vessel had put into Pier 11 in New York City under U.S. Coast Guard escort. A graduate, whom New York City Police identified as Matthew Siss, 18, of Ridge Road, was under arrest, and what was to have been a celebration had turned into a night of gloom for most aboard. It was a party atmosphere aboard the 145-foot, three-decked vessel Atlantica belonging to VIP Yacht Cruises of Weehawken. Employees at the cruise line's offices refused to comment on the incident, claiming the company had neither a general manager nor an official spokesperson. Despite the presence of "the entire administrative team of the high school" the cruise went haywire after Siss was reprimanded by a crewmember for allegedly urinating over the side of the boat, according to a report in The Record of Hackensack. Siss allegedly punched the crewmember, according to a New York City Police detective, Brian Sessa. Following that brief altercation, Siss then went to the pilothouse and began banging on the locked door, apparently seeking another confrontation with the crewman, according to Kamp. Faced with someone apparently trying to force their way into the pilothouse of the $10 million vessel, the skipper reportedly radioed for the U.S. Coast Guard. Since the Hudson River is a federally-protected waterway, and fearing a possible hijacking, the Coast Guard reportedly responded with several patrol boats. Guardsmen boarded the boat armed with M-16 assault rifles and proceeded to search the vessel for drugs or alcohol. When none were found, the cruise boat was escorted to New York City's Pier 11 by a Coast Guard patrol boat. There, Siss was arrested by New York City Police and charged with third-degree assault, a misdemeanor, according to a police spokesman. The Atlantica then returned to Weehawken to disembark its 270 passengers under the gaze of Coast Guardsmen, and police from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Weehawken and New York City. They then reportedly conducted a further search of the vessel. "We've been doing Project Graduation for some 20 years," said Kamp. The annual program, designed to keep students from driving drunk as the result of post-graduation celebrations, is funded through a localcable television telethon which raised some $30,000, he said. "Some 70 percent of the kids go on Project Graduation and sign a contract to avoid using alcohol or drugs during the events. "We're not going to let the actions of a few kids deter us from doing what's right for the school," Kamp said. However, one teacher-chaperone has a different view: "This entire situation could, and should, have been avoided," said Emily Scott, senior class advisor. "Several chaperones, including myself, told the principal we suspected a few students were under the influence of alcohol and drugs. Earlier that evening, I specifically advised the principal, in the presence of two other administrators, to remove several students including the one who was later arrested and charged with third degree assault." The Record's front page story confirms: "Officers initially suspected he might have been drinking, but school administrators said they interrogated Siss before he boarded the boat and did not detect alcohol." "This incident is a glaring example of how a continued failure to discipline the most incorrigible, even violent, among our students (and it) demonstrates a lack of leadership from the administration and the board of education," said Scott.