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An investigation by the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office found that Danvers Public School District officials failed in several ways to properly respond to years of bullying and harassment that created a “toxic team culture” on the varsity hockey team.
The investigation, launched after a November report from the Boston Globe, concluded with a voluntary resolution released Monday that lays out four main courses of action designed to prevent and respond to discriminatory bullying, harassment, and misconduct. The Attorney General’s office resolved the investigation — which was led by Abigail Taylor, chief of the civil rights division, and Assistant Attorney General Jon Burke — without issuing any factual or legal findings.
“Racism, homophobia, and bigotry of any kind have no place in our locker rooms, rinks, or playing fields – we need to create a safe and supportive environment for our students to grow and learn,” Attorney General Maura Healey said in a statement. “The Danvers Public School District has committed to making needed changes to improve the culture in its schools and athletics program, protect students’ rights, and ensure that incidents of hate and bias are never overlooked again.”
The four paths for action that Danvers Public School District voluntarily agreed to in the resolution will remain in effect through the end of the 2023/24 school year and are as follows:
According to a April 28 letter from the attorney general’s office to Danvers district officials, the civil rights complaints investigated by the attorney general’s office alleged that during the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years, the district failed to properly respond to harassment and other misconduct as they are legally obligated to by the Anti-Bullying Law, Student Antidiscrimination Act, and the Fair Educational Practices Act.
The allegations of biased misconduct and bullying are varied. According to a Boston Globe report, a varsity boys’ hockey player reported in June 2020 to school officials an incident where he was physically restrained and struck in the face with a plastic sex toy after refusing to shout a racial slur in the locker room as part of a ritual called “Hard R Fridays.”
The player also told officials of a locker room ritual known as “Gay Tuesdays” in which a player touched him inappropriately after the team stripped naked in the locker room. There were also reports of offensive racial, homophobic, and antisemitic language and images in a team group chat.
“This agreement places schools districts on notice that they have a responsibility to respond to bias incidents and take prompt action when hate infiltrates school programs, especially athletics,” Robert Trestan, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League New England, said in a statement from the AG’s office. “We welcome Danvers’ acceptance of responsibility and commitment to change which represents a path forward for the entire community.”
The attorney general’s investigation focused on the Danvers Public School District’s failure to address the misconduct on the hockey team.
“These problems developed and persisted because the varsity hockey coach failed to properly supervise the team and locker room,” the AG’s office said.
The varsity hockey coach, Danvers police Sergeant Stephen Baldassare, led the hockey team from 2015 to 2021, according to the Boston Globe. The AG’s office said the athletic department regularly reviewed Baldassare’s performance but failed to identify any problems.
According to the Globe, Baldassare denied knowing about the alleged misconduct.
Consistent with the AG’s office recommendations, Baldassare will no longer supervise or have any role in the Danvers School Resource Officer Program. Meanwhile, school superintendent Lisa Dana went on medical leave in December and last month agreed to retire before the next academic year.
According to the AG’s office, the school district went through a process that “led to multiple, overlapping investigations that created clear challenges for the District.” The school district first began an investigation in June 2020 and also referred certain allegations to the police. The Danvers Police Department notified the school in July 2020 that it had determined no criminal conduct occurred.
“The AGO is concerned that the District limited its initial response to the allegations based, in part on DPD’s characterization of what happened and its finding that no crimes occurred,” Healey’s office said in its April letter to school leaders. “School officials are responsible for enforcing school policies — not criminal laws — and must independently investigate and respond to allegations of biased misconduct in order to protect students’ rights at school.”
In August 2020, the school hired an outside law firm to address concerns with the initial response. Those independent investigators concluded the misconduct was “significantly more severe than originally identified” by the school and the police, according to the AG’s office. But the office said the school did not appear to start appropriate disciplinary proceedings.
Healey’s office also presented concerns over the school’s handling of the “virulently racist, homophobic, antisemitic, and misogynistic” text messages. The resolution recognized that texts provide a challenging problem because of legal protections for student speech, but the AG’s office said there was “likely a sufficient connection” between the texts and school activities to permit the school district to take action.
Lastly, the AG’s office said the Danvers Public School District could have improved its communications with the school community regarding the incidents, saying the district’s missives “too frequently did not effectively inform the community of the nature and scope of what had happened.”
The district voluntarily signed the resolution and cooperated fully with the investigation, according to the Attorney General’s office. The scope of the resolution is limited to the responsibility of the school district, but the AG’s office recognized that work must be done outside the school too, according to the resolution.
The office shared additional recommendations with the town of Danvers and the Danvers Police Department.
“We now hope the entire town of Danvers – the school, police department, town hall and individual community members – all take to heart their individual responsibility within it,” Natalie Bowers, the president of the North Shore NAACP, said in a release from the AG’s office. “If we all do our part and sincerely engage in the work, we will ensure Danvers is a place where our youth can sow fond childhood memories instead of receiving scars from trauma. This alone is worth the work.”
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