Hazing, racism and abuse accusations against the 2019-2020 Danvers High School hockey program are shocking enough: Players striking teammates with a sex toy when they refused to shout a racial epithet during “Hard R” Fridays. Group text chats with racist and homophobic images. “Gay Tuesdays,” when an unnamed player says he and others were touched inappropriately while naked in a darkened locker room.
Equally disturbing, however, is the reaction of school leaders. Rather than addressing the issue head on, coaches to administrators to the school committee chose instead to first cast a blind eye to the accusations by a member of the team and others. Then they buried them beneath a flood of questionable investigations, heavily redacted reports and bland public pronouncements.
That has left the town in turmoil, with much of the anger and confusion spilling over at a school committee meeting Monday night. Some residents called on Superintendent Lisa Dana and committee members to resign. Committee members expressed sharp division on whether they addressed the situation properly.
Debbie Joyce, the mother of a Danvers hockey player, blasted adults who have attacked the hockey players on social media. Joyce said her son was a freshman on the team and never saw anyone sexually assaulted. “You’ve plastered a scarlet letter and had a witch trial without having an actual trial,” she said.
Such is the confusion sown by secrecy.
Joyce is correct, in one sense. There is no way for the town to move forward without a full, transparent and public airing of the facts of what happened during that 2019-2020 season. Several questions need answering:
What exactly happened? Last August, the school administration hired a private investigator to examine the culture at Danvers High, following both the accusations against the hockey team as well as more general allegations of racist, sexist and homophobic behavior by students and inappropriate conduct by staff members. The district has released only a heavily redacted document that raises more questions than it answers.
The Danvers Police Department used that report in deciding the students’ actions did not warrant criminal charges. The public needs to see the report to know the evidence and reasons for that decision, especially since the hockey team’s coach at the time was police Sgt. Steve Baldassare, whose son was a team member. Baldassare resigned in July without explanation.
Releasing the full report would also ensure that any hockey players subject to abuse are receiving proper treatment. As Bob Gamer, a member of the town’s Human Rights and Inclusion Committee, said Monday night, “The trauma to the victims can only be described as unspeakable.”
Where were the adult overseers? It is vital to know how school leaders responded once they learned of the allegations against team members. The season went on uninterrupted, which means no one knew what was happening in the locker room or someone knew and did nothing about it. Either scenario is unacceptable.
School officials placed Baldassare on leave from his coaching position last January, but reinstated him in February. Who made that decision, and what went into making it? Then School Committee Chairman David Thomson said at the time the private investigator concluded the hockey coaches knew nothing about what took place in the players’ locker room. What evidence led the investigator to conclude that?
Where does it end? The report school leaders are working so hard to keep secret does not focus solely on the hockey team, but rather the overall environment at the high school. To commission such a report and then not share it with the wider community beggars belief. Were the actions of the 2019-2020 hockey team an isolated event, or are they part of a larger pattern?
School Committee Chairman Eric Crane hinted at such after racist, antisemitic and homophobic graffiti was discovered earlier this week in a third-floor bathroom at the Holton Richmond Middle School.
School and town officials, including Chairman Dutrochet Djoko of the Human Rights and Inclusion Committee, admitted in a public statement Tuesday the underlying causes for such behavior go beyond the schools to a broader venue, citing several disturbing racial incidents in town over the past two years.
“Individually, they are ugly, unacceptable, and have no place in Danvers or in any community,” the statement read. “Collectively, they are proof that there’s much work to be done.”
Crane told reporter Paul Leighton that there is an “undercurrent in this town” that allows students to think such actions are acceptable.
“We’ve got to continue to shine a light on these things and continue to educate young people and adults,” he said. “It’s a task that goes beyond the school. It reaches all the way into our homes and churches and youth sports and anywhere our young people are involved.”
The conscience of Danvers is at stake. The schools and the community must diligently work to clean up the past and put in place measures to combat all forms of hazing, racism, homophobia and antisemitism.
The way to begin the process is to embody transparency. That requires public release of the investigative reports conducted by the school district, its outside investigator, and the police department of the searing accusations against the high school hockey team.
Danvers can only start its healing process when the depth of its injuries is clear.