Though He Retaliated, Now He Says: Mediate

Posted: February 27, 1992

The tabloids trumpeted it as the "Revenge of the Nerd," and the story appeared on dozens of television stations and in newspapers nationwide.

On June 5, 1989, Philip DeFelice, a quiet 18-year-old high school honor student, Eagle Scout and electronics whiz, slipped out of an awards banquet at Medford Township's Shawnee High School after receiving a $2,000 scholarship.

While the banquet went on, DeFelice planted a homemade bomb in locker 1305. The locker belonged to freshman Brian Kerfoot, one of a group of students who had taunted him for months.

The device, rigged to the locker door with string, exploded when Kerfoot opened the locker at 7:10 the next morning. It scorched his face and arms and singed his hair, causing first- and second-degree burns.

Now DeFelice, who was arrested and who admitted to the bombing, is touting mediation, not confrontation, as the way to resolve disputes among students.

DeFelice, now 21, appeared recently at Haddon Heights High School to speak in behalf of a proposed peer mediation program that will enable students to resolve conflicts among themselves.

Haddon Heights draws students of various economic and racial backgrounds

from several school districts, including Lawnside and Barrington.

The peer mediation program at Haddon Heights High School, now in the planning stages, is expected to begin in September.

Had such a program existed at Shawnee High School three years ago, he might never have planted the bomb in Kerfoot's locker, DeFelice told a group of about 30 students, teachers, school administrators and borough police officers who had come together to learn more about peer mediation.

DeFelice was among several speakers, including judges and counselors, invited by David Sandowich, vice principal of Haddon Heights High, to participate in the session.

He declined to discuss the kind of torment he had endured, but newspaper accounts at the time detailed how the slightly built, studious loner had been hounded about his academic prowess and habitual suit and tie by several more popular students known for their skateboarding skills.

The name-calling escalated to a scuffle between DeFelice and students at a neighboring lunch table, and DeFelice threatened to "blow up the whole lunch table."

"A psychological attack can be more damaging than a punch in the stomach," DeFelice said. "You feel it every bit as much.

"In retrospect, I can't believe what I did. But at the time I felt I had only two choices: I could run away or I could take a stand. I wasn't the tattletale type, and anyway I felt I had no support. I kept thinking, 'Don't they care? Why don't they put an end to this?' I didn't want to hurt Brian, I wanted to teach him a lesson. So I took a stand."

He said he packed the bomb with polystyrene "because I never had any intention of hurting anyone. I just wanted to send them a message to leave me alone. I just wanted to scare them."

As part of his application for admission to a pretrial intervention program, DeFelice had to apologize publicly to Kerfoot after meeting privately with him.

He described the meeting with Kerfoot - who was criticized in letters to the editor in various newspapers for pestering DeFelice in the first place - as "a breakthrough."

"I was able to bury the hatchet with my tormentor through mediation," he said. "But that should have been the first resort, not the last. As one person said to me, handshakes accomplish more than handcuffs."

He said that for both him and Kerfoot, "being able to see the other person's point of view was therapeutic. It was definitely an important part of the healing process."

He added that lending his support to peer mediation was his way "of bringing something good from something tragic."

"I'd like to see peer mediation spread," he said. "I guess my ultimate vindication would be to see it adopted at Shawnee. They've indicated that they're interested, but they haven't moved on it so far as I know."

DeFelice, who made the bomb in the woods behind his Tabernacle home with materials he stole from the school, quickly became a prime suspect as reports began to circulate about his difficulties with the other students. He was arrested and charged with aggravated assault, aggravated arson and possession of an explosive device and was held for psychiatric evaluation.

After a week in a minimum-security facility in Burlington County, he spent two months at Hampton Hospital, a private psychiatric hospital in Westampton Township.

After being accepted in the pretrial intervention program and apologizing to Kerfoot, he was placed on six months' probation and required to complete 40 hours of community service, pay a fine, undergo counseling and make restitution for damaging school property.

In return for his successful completion of the program, charges against him were to be dropped. He became eligible Sunday to have his record expunged.

DeFelice now lives on his own in Camden County. He declined to specify his address. He supports himself by working two jobs, as a department store salesman and as an engineering apprentice at a Center City firm.

He has studied for two years at Drexel University, but is taking a hiatus to talk to students at area schools about his experience and urge school officials to adopt peer mediation. He plans to return to Drexel in September and continue with his engineering studies.

Asked whether he felt as if the incident was finally behind him, DeFelice thought for a moment and swallowed hard.

"Yes," he said. "I really do think the worst is over."

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