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Hazing penalty defended

Message had to be sent, officials say

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By David Abel and Erica Noonan
Globe Staff / November 11, 2010

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Educators and sports officials from around the state are defending the suspension of members of the Needham High School girls’ soccer team for allegedly hazing younger teammates, saying the sharp response was necessary, despite the furor it caused.

“These events have to be handled firmly and directly,’’ said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “It’s not just the students directly involved; it’s the whole culture of the school. Everyone is watching how the adults are going to respond, and if the adults don’t send a message with some de gree of severity, it’s as if they’re condoning it.’’

“The only thing I can say is that hazing is a form of bullying,’’ said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. “I would say parents are responding almost as they always do, but when things cool down, people generally see that the school has taken an appropriate response.’’

Paul Wetzel, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, said schools have increasingly cracked down on hazing over the past decade. He said the association runs a mandatory program for all first-year coaches and alerts them to the dangers of hazing.

“One person’s fun is another person’s humiliation,’’ he said. “Fourteen- and 15-year-olds have enough going on with their changing status in the world.’’

The wisdom of suspending several soccer players at a critical time in the season was debated on the sidelines of soccer games and in coffee shops around Needham yesterday, by those who believe the high school went too far and others who said administrators needed to send a message.

The suspended students are accused of blindfolding freshmen on the team, leading them around on dog leashes, and smashing pies in their faces, according to a school official.

Collin MacGowan, a senior, said such rites of passage were not unique to the girls’ soccer team.

“These are good kids that got suspended, not troublemakers,’’ he said. “This wasn’t serious at all; it was just a joke.’’

Dan Gutekanst, Needham Public Schools superintendent, declined yesterday to provide details about the alleged “initiation ritual’’ of new players, which he said he learned about Nov. 4. But he defended the actions taken against the students.

“I would say that the high school principal has acted with fairness, humility, and accountability,’’ Gutekanst said in a telephone interview.

He said Carl Tarabelli, the coach of the team for the past decade, has been placed on paid administrative leave for the duration of the season, but he declined to comment on the number of students suspended, other than saying that there were more than two and that some were suspended for as long as five days. He added that none of the students, as far as he knows, were injured during the alleged hazing.

“It’s an emotional time for everyone, and there will be more time to reflect on what happened, but this isn’t the time,’’ he said.

The suspension of the girls before Tuesday’s state tournament game outraged parents so much that some asked a judge to allow their children to play in the matchup against Brockton. The judge refused, and the team lost 7-1. They played without their coach.

The hazing allegedly occurred during an initiation ritual of new players on the evening of 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.

It wasn’t until a week later that parents of the players received an e-mail from Needham High’s principal, Jonathan D. Pizzi, banning them from meeting over the weekend to practice, according to court papers. The e-mail, sent Nov. 5, said administrators were investigating “an alleged incident of serious misbehavior.’’

Gutekanst said that school administrators learned of the incident from a WBZ-TV reporter and that they took action immediately.

But Nick Bollas, the father of a freshman on the team, discounted the allegations and said the initiation ritual has been misrepresented.

He said his daughter told him that she and other younger girls were asked to do silly things, such as think of something nice to say about the senior girls or sing a song in front of the group.

It was a “misguided attempt at team bonding,’’ Bollas said.

“I don’t condone hazing or bullying; I am [a] pretty attentive and protective dad,’’ he said. “Nobody was pulled around the field by a dog collar. There was no one with a bloody nose.’’

“There was no intimidation and no assault,’’ he added.

He said that the teammates attended the high school football game afterward and that his daughter came home “her normal, happy-go-lucky self’’ and considers the older girls on the team to be like “sisters.’’

Bollas said parents, in going to court to protest the punishment, were trying to do what they thought was right.

“Our concern was not the game,’’ he said. “Our concern [was] that the event of the evening did not justify the punishment.’’

“The events of the last five days have been a lot more detrimental to my daughter’s well-being than the incident that happened,’’ he added.

Joshua Melia, who said he was the godfather of one of the suspended students, said he was shocked that the girls were punished so strongly.

“This was not bullying and it was not hazing, but that’s what they are calling it,’’ he said. “To just label the kids in that way isn’t fair.’’

He said school officials overreacted without knowing the context of the girls’ behavior. “They grow up playing soccer so they can be on the [state] championship team in high school,’’ Melia said. “To take that away for something that was so minor wasn’t right.’’

Police Chief Thomas Leary said his officers are investigating the hazing allegations. He would not discuss the reports and would say only that the investigation began after school officials contacted the school’s resource officer.

David Traub, a spokesman for the Norfolk district attorney’s office, declined to say whether charges would be filed.

The state’s 25-year-old antihazing law applies to secondary schools and carries a penalty of up to a year in prison and a $3,000 fine. The law defines hazing as “any conduct or method of initiation into any student organization, whether on public or private property, which willfully or recklessly endangers the physical or mental health of any student or other person.’’

The law defines hazing as conduct that includes “whipping, beating, branding, forced calisthenics, exposure to the weather, forced consumption of any food, liquor, beverage, drug or other substance, or any other brutal treatment or forced physical activity.’’

The law also says “consent shall not be available as a defense to any prosecution under this action.’’

At Needham High School yesterday, students and teachers debated the school’s response.

Junior Jake Cook said he felt bad for all the students involved. But he said the suspensions were appropriate, because the school’s policy against hazing is in the student handbook.

Still, Cook said he thought administrators “took it a little too far.’’

But David Duffy, the high school’s football coach, said he thought the school handled the situation properly.

“There are life lessons to be learned about everything, and I hope the students have learned from this,’’ he said. “Our first job is to protect the kids. The students, especially the leaders of the team, need to understand that they have a responsibility to behave appropriately.’’

Stephanie Ebbert, Shelley Murphy, and Milton J. Valencia of the Globe staff and correspondent Katrina Ballard contributed to this report. David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

What the law says
The state’s antihazing law, enacted in 1985, applies to secondary schools and carries up to a year in prison and a $3,000 fine for anyone convicted of being a principal organizer or participant in hazing.

It defines hazing as “any conduct or method of initiation into any student organization, whether on public or private property, which willfully or recklessly endangers the physical or mental health of any student or other person. Such conduct shall include whipping, beating, branding, forced calisthenics, exposure to the weather, forced consumption of any food, liquor, beverage, drug or other substance, or any other brutal treatment or forced physical activity which is likely to adversely affect the physical health or safety of any such student or other person, or which subjects such student or other person to extreme mental stress, including extended deprivation of sleep or rest or extended isolation.’’

The law also says “consent shall not be available as a defense to any prosecution under this action.’’

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