Danvers fights efforts to expose high school hockey team’s alleged misconduct
DANVERS, MA – Public officials in this North Shore community have concealed for more than 16 months a disturbing secret.
In June 2020, a varsity boys’ hockey player reported to school officials and police that two teammates physically restrained him the previous season while another repeatedly struck him in the face with a plastic sex toy because he refused to shout a racial slur in one of the all-white team’s regular locker room rituals.
The sessions were known on the team as “Hard R Fridays,” the “R” referring to the final letter of the n-word, according to the player and other individuals who separately learned about the team’s alleged tradition.
The player later reported the incident to a special investigator commissioned by the Danvers School Committee. He also told school officials, police, and the special investigator that a player touched him inappropriately after the team stripped naked in another locker room ritual known as “Gay Tuesdays,” according to the player and three other people who were with him when he made his statements to investigators.
What’s more, more than half of the 2019-20 hockey team allegedly participated in a disturbing group text chat laced with deeply offensive words and images. In a transcript obtained by the Globe, one text made a crass joke about how Jews were murdered during the Holocaust, while numerous others included videos making light of the violent deaths of Black people, and one mocked an image of a Black Danvers High student, suggesting he was being lynched.
Town officials have compiled two investigative reports and commissioned a third on the matter, but school officials and police have yet to inform the community about the alleged violent racist and homophobic locker room behavior or details of the virulent group text messages.
The response by town officials has in effect shielded from public scrutiny allegations that could reflect poorly on a prominent Danvers police sergeant, Stephen Baldassare, who was the hockey team’s head coach at the time of the reported incidents and for many years worked as a resource officer in the high school. He has since resigned as the hockey coach.
Baldassare did not respond to interview requests from the Globe but has denied to investigators knowing anything about the alleged misconduct, according to town officials.
For the last six months, Danvers officials have fought the Globe’s efforts to obtain details of the investigative reports. Indeed, the school district refused to produce even a redacted copy of the special investigator’s report until it was ordered to do so in August by state public records authorities, responding to appeals by the Globe.
Even then, the district released a copy in which the investigator’s findings and conclusions were almost entirely blacked out, as were specifics of the alleged locker room abuses and text chat. On Monday, after a further Globe appeal and resultant state order, the school department produced another, somewhat less redacted, copy of the report.
The Danvers School Committee also has declined to shed light on details of the alleged abuse.
“This is not because we are trying to sweep things under the rug or because there is some kind of coverup,” then-chairman David Thomson read from a statement at the committee’s March meeting. “It is simply because when employees, minors, and third-party witnesses are involved, there is a certain level of privacy that individuals are legally entitled to.”
School Superintendent Lisa Dana, in a statement to the Globe, said, “We do not tolerate and will continue to address racist, sexist, homophobic, anti-sematic [sic] language and actions. We continue to move forward as an equity seeking district. It is important for us as community leaders and educators to help our students realize the power of their words and decisions while providing them an opportunity to learn from their mistakes and become productive, responsible, caring citizens of the community.”
Not every School Committee member is satisfied with the district’s response to the allegations. Robin Doherty, the top vote-getter in a four-way race in May for two open seats on the board, has since read a redacted copy of the special investigator’s report and was deeply disturbed by the allegations.
“To learn of the alleged events in my community is extremely disappointing and unfortunate,” Doherty said. “Transparency is the key to trust. In order to learn from these events and ensure they never happen again, we must be open with our community.”
Closing ranks is a common and misguided response when community leaders confront explosive allegations, one expert said.
“A lot of times people close ranks when they realize they’ve made major mistakes and they don’t want them to typify them or their whole community,” said Dan Lebowitz, executive director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University.
Lebowitz, who is familiar with the alleged misconduct, described it as “unbelievably disturbing and amazingly egregious on a lot of levels.”
He said Danvers officials, “rather than moving into a mode of coverup,” would better serve the community by “moving into a mode of constructive self-criticism.”
Events at parade prompt complaints
Danvers High launched its investigation of the hockey team after receiving complaints that three senior team members rode in a Jeep at the head of the school’s rolling graduation parade waving a “Trump 2020″ flag. Spectators told police the players shouted racial slurs at a Black sanitation crew along the route, which the students denied when later questioned.
It was when interviewing hockey players about the graduation parade and the team’s culture that school officials first heard the alleged victim’s account of the locker room behavior. He said he told them that the rituals had become a team tradition in recent years and that he had avoided being targeted until that January.
He spoke to the Globe on the condition that he not be identified for fear of retribution.
The rituals, he alleged, occurred repeatedly during the season before practices in the locker room at Endicott College’s Raymond J. Bourque Arena in Beverly, the team’s home rink.
On the “Gay Tuesday” when he was allegedly touched inappropriately, the player said, he complied with ringleaders who instructed teammates to strip naked. He said he had previously seen players who refused to undress be forcibly stripped.
Describing the ritual, the player said, “The lights go off, then people go around touching people, and when the lights come back on, you have to guess who’s touching you.”
He said he was touched on the buttocks, but could not see the person in the darkness. He characterized the experience as foolish, and intrusive.
“I guess some people were having fun with it,” he said. “But it seemed a hundred percent like hazing.”
On “Hard R Fridays,” team members allegedly approached players and commanded them to shout the n-word. The alleged victim said he had seen teammates who refused to obey be held down and beaten with a plastic sex toy called “The Pink Dragon” until it left an imprint on their faces, which is what he said happened to him that January.
He was seated on a bench, he said, when two players pinned him against a wall while a third repeatedly struck him with the toy until it left a welt on his cheek.
“They wanted to make a mark with it,” he said. “That’s how it worked.”
The “class will” in the 2020 Danvers High yearbook cites a senior hockey player bequeathing “The Pink Dragon” to a younger teammate. The alleged victim said a team member had purchased the sex toy during the 2017-18 season, and it had been handed down to players each year after.
Three seniors on the 2019-20 team, in their yearbook profiles, cited among their interests and activities “G Tuesday” and “R Friday.”
The player who came forward said he was asked by the town’s current police chief, James Lovell, if he wanted to press charges, but he declined. He told the Globe he viewed his teammates, including the alleged perpetrators, as victims.
They were “portraying their racism, but I felt like they needed to do it to survive,” he said. “I don’t hate any of those kids. They are a product of their environment.”
When he gave his account to police and school officials, the alleged victim was accompanied by one of his parents. When he was twice interviewed by the special investigator, he was accompanied by an attorney and another adult. All three corroborated to the Globe his statements to investigators.
The player said he came forward to hold accountable the adults who failed to prevent the alleged wrongdoing and to spur the community to address a cultural climate that may have contributed to it.
To date, however, no adult involved with the team has publicly accepted responsibility.
Baldassare and his assistant coaches, in unredacted sections of town investigative reports, denied any knowledge of the alleged misconduct.
The alleged victim said he believed his teammates were too fearful of retaliation to report the misbehavior. He said he found it hard to fathom that none of the coaches knew about the rituals, especially the Friday episodes.
“When kids gave in on Hard R Fridays, they were screaming the n-word,” he said. “It wasn’t like it was a quiet thing that could be easily ignored.”
He said an assistant coach once walked into the dark locker room on a “Gay Tuesday,” turned on the lights, and saw a player dancing naked in a circle of nude players. He said the coach asked for an explanation, and the player told him it was “Gay Tuesday.”
“The coach said, ‘I don’t want to know,’ turned the lights off, and left,” the alleged victim said.
In the redacted investigative reports, the assistant coach denied witnessing such a scene. The Globe’s efforts to reach him were unsuccessful.
Safe sport specialists said it was unacceptable, if not negligent, for a coach to know nothing about this sort of behavior occurring in his team’s locker room.
“Coaches can’t pick and choose what they’re responsible for,” said Elliot Hopkins, director of sports, sanctioning, and student services for the National Federation of High Schools. “Once I drop my kid off in that program, the coach is responsible for keeping my kid safe when he’s away from my supervision.
“You can’t say, ‘I didn’t know,’ ” Hopkins said. “You have to know.”
USA Hockey, which certified Baldassare as a coach, requires coaches to supervise locker rooms. The Danvers school system’s “student welfare policy” states that staff “need to ensure that students are supervised at all times,” and the high school’s athletic director, Andy St. Pierre, told the special investigator that he shares with coaches the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association’s code of ethics, which calls for protecting the welfare of student-athletes.
‘Adults in power must be held accountable’
Max Leete, a three-time high school state wrestling champion who graduated from Danvers High in June, was the school’s representative last year to the School Committee. Leete, who is Black, said he recognized the hockey team’s culture as toxic and blamed the school system for not publicly holding Baldassare responsible.
“Kids are kids, and kids can change,” Leete said. “But adults in power must be held accountable.”
When some Danvers residents learned of the offensive text exchanges in the summer of 2020 through social media, they complained to the School Committee, which commissioned Waltham attorney Allyson Kurker to conduct the special investigation.
Dana, the superintendent, wrote in a letter to the community that there was little the district could do about the texts. “In most cases we are not authorized to punish private, out-of-school speech, even speech that is odious, abhorrent and contrary to our core values,” she stated.
Notable among those very disturbed by the texts was Dr. Dutrochet Djoko, chair of the Danvers Human Rights and Inclusion Committee. In an e-mail to town officials, he called for a thorough investigation and wrote, “We have to be careful not to give the perception of a cover up.”
“If what’s alleged is true” about the texts, Djoko wrote, “hate is another pandemic that we have to tackle head on.”
Kurker’s inquiry appeared to be hampered by limitations similar to those that school and police investigators faced. Kurker, who declined an interview request from the Globe, reported interviewing only the alleged victim and two other Danvers High students. She otherwise relied mostly on the school and police investigative reports. Records show the Danvers school district paid more than $44,000 for Kurker’s report.
In sections of Kurker’s report that are not redacted, she states, “There was a culture of bullying” and “misconduct on the team,’’ but the details are blacked out.
In their inquiry, school officials interviewed 18 of the team’s 22 players, while the police, for their part, interviewed 15, with seven refusing to talk for various reasons, including a lawyer’s advice. Lovell, the chief police investigator, invited each of the seven to submit later to interviews if they wished, but there is no indication in the documents that they did. The redactions conceal whether the players who refused to cooperate included team leaders or alleged perpetrators.
Dana, in her letter to the community in August 2020, said the district had conducted a “thorough investigation” and taken unspecified disciplinary action against unidentified individuals.
The events prompted Danvers High to develop a written policy on monitoring locker rooms that coaches must sign, and certain coaches were required to attend additional training sessions.
The Danvers Public Schools are committed to moving forward with providing an inclusive and respectful environment in our schools, at our after school events, and in our community,” Dana said in a statement to the Globe.
Police: No criminal behavior
As for the police investigation, a heavily redacted copy of the report indicates authorities gave the alleged victim’s account less weight than they did his teammates who denied being victimized. Some players generally described the alleged misconduct as harmless locker room hijinks, boys being boys.
Lovell, now the police chief, was a captain when he led the investigation. He concluded: “I believe that some immature behavior occurred inside of the Danvers High School varsity hockey team’s locker room but it does not appear that anyone was forced to participate. I do not have any reason to believe any criminal behavior occurred at this time.”
The police chief at the time, Patrick Ambrose, went a step further in exonerating Baldassare’s team. In a letter to Dana, Ambrose, who has since died, wrote, “All fifteen players interview[ed] denied ever being physically assaulted.’’ That assertion was disputed by the alleged victim, who was among the 15 interviewed.
The Essex County district attorney did not seek criminal charges.
The alleged victim said he was stunned when the School Committee presented its summary of Kurker’s report and made no mention of the locker room rituals. Dana concluded the board’s discussion by listing steps the district has taken to promote a more equitable and inclusive culture.
“I was like, are you kidding me?” the alleged victim said. “Someone is dropping the ball here.”
In fact, Dana’s office had decided even before Kurker completed her investigation to grant Baldassare a new contract for the 2020-21 season.
Baldassare is widely known in Danvers, a former star athlete enshrined in the high school’s Hall of Fame. A longtime member of the police force, he worked as a detective before he became the resource officer at Danvers High around 2010.
In 2018, Baldassare was honored by the state’s VFW chapter as the law enforcement officer of the year. He currently serves in the department’s community relations/juvenile division, according to the town’s website.
Baldassare was placed on administrative leave for the first 10 games of the 2020-21 season, with his $6,239 stipend prorated, until Kurker’s report was complete. When he returned for the final three games, Baldassare wrote a letter to “DHS Hockey Families,” pledging to improve the program’s culture.
“I have learned from this experience and we will focus on creating a positive, supportive, respectful, and inclusive team environment for seasons to come,” he wrote.
But his coaching career ended in July, when the district posted its annual hockey job opening and Dana announced that Baldassare had resigned.
With Baldassare out, the task of improving the culture falls to others. The current School Committee chairman, Eric Crane, said the challenge extends beyond the hockey locker room.
“This is a systemic problem,” Crane said. “We need the entire community’s help to be sure every person is treated with the dignity they deserve as a human being without reference to labels but simply with reference to their character.”