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Needham High suspends girls accused of hazing

Judge rejects plea to play in big game

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By Kathleen Burge and Sarah Thomas
Globe Staff | Globe Correspondent / November 10, 2010

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NEEDHAM — Several members of the Needham High School girls’ soccer team were suspended before last night’s state tournament game for allegedly hazing younger players on the team.

The school’s decision outraged the girls’ parents, who asked a judge to allow their children to play in Needham’s game against Brockton. The judge refused and the game went on, as parents and students sat in the cold rain last night and watched Needham lose 7-1.

The hazing allegations stemmed from “an initiation ritual of new team members’’ that took place on Friday evening, Oct. 29, after the team had won a share of the Bay State Conference, Carey Division title, according to documents filed Monday in Norfolk Superior Court.

But it wasn’t until a week later that parents of students on the girls’ varsity soccer team received an e-mail from Needham High’s principal, Jonathan D. Pizzi, banning the team from meeting the entire weekend to practice, according to court papers. The e-mail, sent last Friday, said administrators were investi gating “an alleged incident of serious misbehavior.’’

WBZ-TV reported that the hazing victims had been blindfolded and led around on dog leashes, then hit in their faces with pies. The team’s coach, Carl Tarabelli, was put on administrative leave, the station said. He could not be reached for comment yesterday; he was not coaching last night’s game, according to a coach for Brockton’s team.

“The soccer team has been doing this to new recruits for years,’’ said Sydney Kantoff, a senior who said she was friends with some of the players. “Why did they pick this year to ruin my friends’ lives? I talked to the girls, and they said everyone was laughing. The biggest problem was that one girl got pie on her boots. And guess what? Her teammates bought her a new pair of boots.’’

But another student agreed with the school’s response. “I think the team’s actions went way overboard,’’ said Jonathan Schoeller, a sophomore.

The town was abuzz with the hazing allegations yesterday, as television crews camped outside Memorial Field where the game was played and parents and students talked about the incident and the response. But school officials were saying little to explain the suspensions.

At one point, it appeared school officials were going to cancel the game.

“The Needham High School Community is saddened about recent events involving the girls’ soccer team,’’ said a statement from the superintendent’s office yesterday afternoon. “The high school administration, staff, students, and families urge the local Needham community to support our team as they face Brockton tonight.’’

Needham police released a statement saying the school resource officer was notified of “an incident involving hazing’’ among members of the soccer team and that it is being actively investigated by the police.

After they learned of the school’s response to the allegations, players and parents asked Pizzi to meet with them over the weekend, saying they were worried that his actions would eliminate the team from the state tournament.

When Pizzi said he was not available to meet, the families instead went to court.

Todd D. White, a lawyer and the father of one of the soccer players, filed a request in Norfolk Superior Court for a restraining order against Pizzi and Micah Hauben, athletic director at Needham High School. The parents argued that the school could not legally force the team to forfeit their spot in the tournament.

Although the student handbook forbids initiation rites, White wrote, the hazing policy requires administrators to tell students to first stop the offensive behavior. If the hazing continues, he said, the policy allows administrators to suspend students. School officials had not told the students to stop the offensive behavior, White argued.

White also argued that school administrators had not communicated sufficiently with the students and their families, violating the school’s student handbook policies.

But Judge Barbara A. Dortch-Okara agreed with the school, ruling that since students are not entitled to participate in high school sports, preventing them from doing so does not violate their right of due process. Since the students and their parents did not show that they were likely to win the case, Dortch-Okara wrote, she could not grant the injunction.

The complaint from the families of soccer players included copies of e-mails from the parents of several students on the team asking Pizzi and Hauben not to hurt the entire soccer team by disciplining students.

“Our daughter is a responsible adult,’’ wrote Lisa and Craig Newfield, parents of one player. “From her and her cohort we hear that the incident was misguided, but no real harm was done. Their sentiment, and ours, is: it happened, it’s over, let’s move on. Jessica was not hurt by the events, and continues to respect the seniors and feels like a respected member of the team . . .’’

Michael Greis, a member of the School Committee, said in an interview that he endorsed the administration’s handling of the episode.

“Bullying is a widespread issue’’ throughout school systems and society, he said.

“We have a set of values as a school system, and we try to live by them and set an example.’’

“This is a teaching moment,’’ said Chris Considine, father of a Needham High graduate who went on to play soccer in college. “We have a wonderful school department and a great faculty, and they can educate kids on how to conduct themselves as representatives of the school.’’

In 2009, Needham cracked down on rowdy behavior during boys hockey games, barring students from one game. Needham fans had engaged in negative chants and heckled representatives from the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association in a previous game against Wellesley.

Massachusetts enacted a law in 1985 requiring secondary schools to adopt antihazing policies and distribute them to all students, teams, and school organizations. Since its passage, there have been fewer reports of hazing, said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “Any incidents of hazing need to be dealt with firmly,’’ Scott said.

Jon Mattleman, director of Needham Youth Services, said he would not comment on the situation in Needham, but he said that in general, hazing can be humiliating for the victims.

“We can all relate to that feeling, when we’re feeling powerless. It’s a terrible feeling, and that’s what’’ a lot of hazing is about, he said.

Mattleman said that hazing is similar to bullying in that both cause discomfort and in both cases, the bully or person inflicting the hazing tells the victim to keep quiet about the incident.

Globe Correspondent Katrina Ballard and Globe staff writers Matt Carroll and Craig Larson contributed to this report. Kathleen Burge can be reached at kburge@globe.com.

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