Rites And Wrongs: Reports of Hazing Divide Mass. Town
WILMINGTON, MASS.--In the dog days of last summer, a group of high school football players here assaulted--in police parlance--some underclassmen at an isolated camp across the New Hampshire border. Those actions unleashed a series of painful events for this community that will culminate next week in a recall election targeting two school committee members.
School officials will not discuss what happened at the camp during those five days, but local newspaper accounts describe tales of hazing that included forced nudity.
While parents of the victims decided not to press criminal charges, the school disciplined the students involved.
And the two school committee members who confirmed the incident for reporters are under fire--and facing a recall--for allegedly bringing disgrace on the school and the community.
But the dramatic events that have rocked this town for the past five months also raise fundamental issues of crime and punishment, the governance of schools, the right to privacy, the status of athletes, and the intrusion of politics into the educational system.
"Now it has gone way beyond Wilmington High School,'' said Principal Paul T. Fleming. "But the aftershock keeps coming back.''
A predominantly working-class community 15 miles north of Boston, Wilmington is home to 17,650 residents, nearly all of them white.
In some respects, it still retains the trappings of small-town America, although not everyone knows everyone else anymore.
Family roots go deep; it is not uncommon to learn that one member of the power structure is related to another. Nor is it unusual to find that old slights have turned into hard-and-fast grudges.
It is a town that distinguishes between its "townies,'' those born and reared here, and more recent residents, who are dubbed "outsiders.''
One resident recalls an obituary printed in the local weekly newspaper shortly after she moved here 20 years ago. Although not a native, said the obituary, 95-year-old so-and-so had lived in Wilmington 93 years.
And it is a place where the public high school football team upholds a tradition that dates back to 1956. On Saturday mornings, the team attends mass at a Roman Catholic church even though many of the players and coaches are not of that faith.
Many of its residents are but two generations removed from the tenements of Boston, Mr. Fleming noted.
"They are proud of what they achieved,'' he said. "They want their own school to be excellent and a reflection of their own belief in education.''
Consequently, when television stations and newspapers from the metropolitan area got wind of hazing allegations involving the football team, some residents of the community believed the unwanted publicity reflected poorly on the town and the school.
They blamed two school committee members, Shirley F. Callan and Linda T. McMenimen, for making Wilmington a laughingstock because they had publicly acknowledged the hazing.
"Basically, I feel these two members did our children an injustice, and [I] feel they should be removed from office,'' said Robert Surran, who is running against Ms. Callan in the recall. By talking to the media, "they just took a smoldering situation and put gasoline on it.''
Ridicule and Football Ruin
A school committee member since 1985, Ms. Callan is in her third term. Ms. McMenimen served on the school committee for nine years, sat out in 1985 due to a family illness, and was elected again in April 1992. Both are professional educators.
The women and their supporters contend that their opponents have obscured the real issue of student violence, first by seeking their resignations from the school committee, and then when that failed, by seeking their recall.
"In order not to take responsibility for what happened at that camp,'' said Ms. Callan, "they shifted the whole thing over to us. It's 'kill the messenger.' ''
As captured on videotape by Wilmington Community Television, a contentious crowd of more than 300 residents showed up for a school committee meeting on Oct. 14--the night after a town selectman pledged to seek a recall of the women when they refused to resign.
Members of the football team were there, dressed in their uniforms, as were their parents, who donned jerseys for the occasion.
One speaker after another, including one school committee member, angrily denounced the women.
Some contended that as a result of the women's actions, the coaches, who were reprimanded for their lack of oversight, were being made scapegoats. Others noted that football players and other students were being ridiculed wherever they went.
Schools Superintendent William J. Fay Jr. recounted some of the incidents that had befallen students since reports of hazing began to circulate. Among them, he said, rivals had written obscenities on the cheerleaders' dressing-room mirror, while opposing fans, alluding to allegations of anal penetration, gestured with broomsticks that they brought to a Wilmington home game.
If the hazing had happened 20 or 30 years ago, said Mr. Fay--whose contract the school committee had decided not to renew before the hazing occurred--the community would have "closed ranks'' and not aired its "dirty laundry'' in public.
Others were upset that if the superintendent were to allow the school's principal to carry out his plan to bar 14 players from the squad, the football team would be in ruin.
"One thing I don't hear is any concern for the victims,'' said Ms. Callan. "To some extent, I look out and hear you clap about what happened at that football camp,'' she said to boos and jeers.
Pumping his arm up and down, Town Manager Michael Caira took his turn at the microphone.
"Everybody sitting here has been victimized,'' he told Ms. Callan and Ms. McMenimen. "Your actions are far more outrageous than those they are trying to correct.''
14 Students Cited
Forty-nine boys, the coach, and five assistants arrived at Camp Wakuta in Freedom, N.H., at the end of August for a five-day football camp.
Although their schedules were full from morning until night, the students found the time to get in trouble while in their cabins, which were isolated from the coaches' lodgings.
School officials later determined that 14 upperclassmen had been involved in the hazing of an unspecified number of incoming freshmen and sophomores.
Acting on a complaint from an unnamed source on Sept. 20, Wilmington's police chief, Bobby N. Stewart, ordered an investigation.
The police concluded that students "had been subjected to indecent assault and battery and other forms of assault,'' according to a letter the chief wrote to the superintendent.
The chief also expressed concern for the continued safety and well-being of the victims and witnesses.
One student, he wrote, was removed from his car on Sept. 26, threatened, and told to keep his mouth shut.
Public and Private
Many of the details of what took place are undisclosed. In a ruling sought by The Sun newspaper of Lowell, the state supervisor of public records found that the district did not have to release the nature of 10 of the acts because they fell under a section of the law that exempts disclosure.
The law reads in part: "All reports of rape and sexual asssault or attempts to commit such offenses and all conversations between police officers and victims of said offenses shall not be public reports and shall be maintained by the police departments in a manner which will assure their confidentiality.''
What is a matter of public record are four incidents. A young boy was forcibly given a haircut; two boys struck each other with rope; and an older boy flicked a belt at a younger boy, causing a welt on his stomach. Also, a boy was forced to crawl to a pile of dirt, find a dime with his nose, and transfer it to his teeth.
A story in the Boston Herald describes several other incidents that are attributed to a player's parent.
The story said two naked players were put into a sleeping bag together; a player was forced to lie face down naked on the springs of an upper bunk bed while other youths hung objects from his genitals; and some of the younger players were also forced to perform "monkey rolls,'' a leapfrog-like football drill, while naked.
Officials will neither confirm nor deny that these events occurred.
There are two distinct points of view about the punishment that was meted out.
Using the school's student handbook as a guide, Principal Fleming decided to suspend the 14 youths for five school days and throw them off the football team for good.
Although only some of the 14 actually committed the acts, the handbook does not differentiate between perpetrators and witnesses, he said.
The boys appealed to Superintendent Fay, who lightened their punishments to three days' suspension and sitting out one football game.
The superintendent said he did so because he was the only one who had interviewed everyone involved, because stories kept changing, and because most of the boys had impeccable reputations.
Had it been left to the administration and handled discreetly, said James M. Gillis, the athletic director, the offenders "would have been thrown off the team.''
Once the hazing became public, there was concern that the two or three students who committed the most serious acts would have been readily identified if they had been thrown off the team.
Others contend that, like child abuse, keeping such incidents quiet allows them to flourish.
"It's destroying authority,'' said Peggy Kane, another school committee member. "It's destroying the fiber of what society is about--taking responsibility for your actions. What was right was to be punished according to the handbook.''
"It would have been different if this had been an isolated incident,'' added Ms. McMenimen.
Hazing had also occurred at the football camp in 1981. School officials that year determined that students urinated on younger players, and some players were blindfolded and forced to eat a mixture of peanut butter and bananas that they were told was dog feces.
At the school committee meeting on Oct. 14, one graduate of Wilmington High School confessed that he had been a victim in 1979, witnessed acts committed on younger boys in 1980, and was a perpetrator in 1981.
Ms. McMenimen, who was on the committee at the time, observed that "perhaps if we had been stern enough 11 years ago ... hazing incidents this year might not have happened.''
School officials have now decided to end the annual football camp.
A 'Media Circus'
School officials acknowledge that the acts go beyond "short sheeting and shaving cream,'' but there is disagreement in the community about the severity of the acts.
Some say the acts have been blown out of proportion, amounting to little more than pranks. Others call them a form of child abuse, or possibly criminal acts under state law.
"Some people would laugh at some of the things that happened,'' said Mr. Gillis, the athletic director. "Other people would think [they were] so bad, their mouths would hang open.''
But the way the incidents have been portrayed, Mr. Gillis said, makes the youths "come off like they're sexual deviates.''
"I really think the parents and the kids themselves think it was momentarily embarrassing,'' said Mr. Fay, the superintendent. "The kids themselves thought of it as prankish behavior. I don't look upon it as prankish.''
The mother of one victim said her young son was not at all traumatized, yet she wondered if he was abnormal because he was not affected.
"What good has come from this media circus?'' the mother asked. "You have to ask yourself this: This was for the children? How have they benefited from this?''
Not a single victim's parents took up the offer of in-school counseling the district offered, although about two-thirds of them reserved the right to do so.
"What bothers me is that these people aren't outraged,'' Ms. Kane, the school committee member, said of the parents. "These students need help here. I don't understand the thinking of the adults involved.''
In a written report, Mr. Fleming, the principal, characterized what happened in such language as "disgusting criminally culpable hazing'' and "a kind of valueless sexually oriented slavery.''
He urged psychiatric counseling for the students who committed most of the acts as well as professional help at community expense for the victims.
"Those assaulted as youth very, very often assault as adults,'' Mr. Fleming wrote. "Is that to be the football legacy for these young people?''
The incident was deemed serious enough to warrant investigation by the state education department. A report was expected to be released late last week, according to Daniel French, the director of the bureau of student development and health.
'Where Is the Due Process?'
Although recall organizers accuse Ms. Callan and Ms. McMenimen of being the unnamed sources for numerous pieces of information given to the media, their concrete complaints boil down to a handful.
Asked by a television reporter following an emergency committee meeting how she felt about the hazing allegations, Ms. Callan said she was "devastated.''
Ms. McMenimen is quoted by The Sun as saying the acts involved "sexual fondling, degradation, and humiliation.'' She also is quoted as saying that some members of the team "were found to eat dog feces.''
Ms. McMenimen says she does not recall using the word "fondling,'' but concedes she may have. As for the "feces'' quote, she says she was referring to the hazing in 1981 and was unaware at the time that feces apparently were not involved.
The other comment of Ms. Callan's that recall organizers are citing is "I won't deny that,'' when a local reporter asked her if a student had urinated on another.
Her opponents claim she lied, Ms. Callan says she did not, and the nature of the most serious incidents remains confidential.
"We would be upset if all these things were true,'' said Cathryn A. Gillis, one of the organizers of the recall and the athletic director's sister-in-law. "They shouldn't ever have talked about the allegations with the press.''
She points to 42 articles that appeared in local newspapers from the day after the emergency meeting to the Oct. 14 school committee hearing.
Had the parents appealed the superintendent's decision, Ms. Gillis said, the school committee would have been the body to hear it. With the prejudicial statements the committee members made, said Ms. Gillis, "where is the due process now?''
The Recall Effort Begins
Ms. Gillis and her group gathered the requisite 1,100-plus signatures they needed for a recall election.
The petition alleges that Ms. Callan and Ms. McMenimen violated their official duties and obligations as outlined in the handbook of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.
Specifically, the petition contends that they breached their responsibilities to the children and the entire community, overstepped their policymaking function, and played politics by disseminating confidential information to the media.
But Paul H. Gorden, the executive director of the state association, said that the handbook contains guidelines and has no statutory authority. "It was not meant in any way to be used to discipline or recall someone.''
Recalls, he said, should be used in cases of criminal conduct or malfeasance.
One of the major points of contention is whether the school committee members overstepped their bounds.
"The school committee's role is policy, not day-to-day operations,'' said Mr. Fay. In his view, the hazing fell under the latter category.
"The problem with [permitting] professional educators to do their job has become such a point in Massachusetts that the new reform package [that state lawmakers are working on] severely restricts the role of the school committee,'' Mr. Fay said.
But Ms. McMenimen, Ms. Callan, and Ms. Kane say the school committee should have been informed because of the potential for a lawsuit.
Five New Committee Members?
Three school committee members are up for re-election in April, including Ms. Kane, who is being targeted by recall organizers.
"You could conceivably have five new members on the school committee within a frame of four months,'' said Peter D. DeRoeve, the business administrator who became acting superintendent until a successor to Mr. Fay came on board late this month.
Mr. DeRoeve's major worry is how the town might react should the district seek more money or ask for other resources in the future.
How the high school is faring is still to be determined.
When he became principal in 1984, Mr. Fleming said one of his goals was to make the community so excited about Wilmington High School that parents would send their children there rather than the many private schools in the area.
Academic standards were raised, the school underwent a $10 million refurbishment, and more middle school children were opting for the public high school.
But these have been lean economic times in Massachusetts, and school officials have had to cut classes and teachers. On top of that is the well-publicized hazing.
Mr. Fleming says there is no real way for him to answer if that will cause long-term damage.
"I wonder if the people will lose confidence in the school, even though only 14 of our youngsters were involved in this,'' he said. "I think people have a tendency when something happens to want to condemn everybody.''
He now says that it was probably good that the hazing became public.
"If it had kept going on, who knows what would have
Vol. 12, Issue 18