AG investigation, NAACP report target Danvers leaders in wake of hockey team controversy
DANVERS, MA – Danvers leaders faced new fallout Wednesday from alleged violent racist, homophobic, and antisemitic behavior by its high school boys hockey team, as the state attorney general’s office disclosed it is investigating the school system’s handling of the case and the NAACP called for changes in the Police Department over its role in the controversy.
Attorney General Maura Healey’s office had previously stopped short of acknowledging it had launched an investigation, saying only that it was “looking into” the Danvers case. But a spokesperson said Tuesday that a preliminary review has since triggered a formal investigation.
Notable among the allegations the school district withheld were statements by a member of the 2019-20 Danvers team that other players pinned him down in the locker room and beat him about the face for refusing to shout the n-word as part of one ritual and that he was touched inappropriately on the buttocks during another ritual in which players stripped naked in the dark.
Danvers School Superintendent Lisa Dana, who withheld the abuse allegations from the public with the school board’s backing, went on medical leave in December, less than eight weeks after the Globe first reported the system’s refusal to release results of its investigation. Her duties have been handled by assistant superintendents Keith Taverna and Mary Wermers.
In a statement, Taverna and Wermers said, “Starting with the initial outreach to the school department, the district has been receptive to the review process initiated by the Attorney General’s office. We have made ourselves available to answer all of their questions, we have provided all documentation that has been requested of us, and we are prepared to implement recommendations that may follow.”
Meanwhile, in a report issued Wednesday, the North Shore NAACP recommended that Stephen Baldassare, a police sergeant who was also head coach of the hockey team during the alleged misconduct, be reassigned from supervising the town’s school resource officers.
The group also called on the Danvers Police Department to improve its hiring and training, to commit to greater transparency, and to acknowledge that its role in the hockey case contributed to “undermining trust and causing fear and trauma” in the community.
NAACP branch president Natalie Bowers characterized the report as a “People’s Call for Accountability.”
“The community wants to finally heal from the racial trauma that has lingered for the last two years,” Bowers said. “It seeks accountability so that it can rebuild trust in local governance. Danvers has much work to do.”
Bowers, however, stated in a letter Tuesday to the town’s Human Rights and Inclusion Committee that Police Chief James Lovell and Town Manager Steve Bartha have reviewed the report and acknowledged the NAACP’s concerns but “decided not to adopt our recommendations.”
Lovell, in a statement to the Globe, defended the integrity of the hockey investigation, denied the police made any attempt to cover up the allegations, and said the department has taken measures and committed to launching additional initiatives that address the NAACP’s concerns.
He also reflected on the lack of diversity in the Danvers Police Department. The force, including the command staff, is composed of 39 officers: 36 white males and three white females.
“As a civil service community, Danvers is required to follow their guidelines in the selection process of police candidates,” Lovell said. “A list of candidates is provided to us, upon request, by Civil Service, and we are required to hire from that list, which is developed using a variety of criteria, including exam scores, residency, veteran status, etc.”
He said the department uses various methods to screen candidates, including analyzing their responses to questions about racism, bias, and excessive use of force.
Lovell also pledged to promote racial sensitivity in part by assigning officers to attend a four-hour webinar produced by the Anti-Defamation League, titled “Fair, Equitable, and Objective Policing.”
As for removing Baldassare from his school-related assignment, the NAACP report says taking that action would demonstrate “the department is committed to improving its practices, including ensuring that those [officers] it places in critical roles in the schools have the training necessary to do the work appropriately and ensure the safety of the school community without multiple competing priorities and interests.”
Lovell and Bartha have rejected previous requests to reassign Baldassare, a former star athlete at Danvers High School who lives in town and has served on the police force since 1999.
Baldassare told police and school investigators he knew nothing about the alleged misconduct. He has not publicly addressed the allegations.
The Globe’s efforts to reach Baldassare were unsuccessful. In a letter to Lovell and Bartha in February, he said he wanted to retain his police assignment to help the community move forward. The school district rehired him as the hockey coach despite the abuse allegations, but he resigned from the position before the 2021-22 season.
Baldassare wrote that he understands some people will never be satisfied that he was unaware of the alleged misconduct. Throughout his career, he said, “serving, supporting, mentoring, coaching, and helping kids has been the driving motivator and passion in my professional life.”
On accepting a reassignment, Baldassare wrote, “The truth is this would be the easy thing to do, walking away from both the work I love and the challenges that lie ahead, but that isn’t me.”
Instead, he said, “I will ensure that our unit is a leading advocate and force for positive change within the community.”
Bowers said the NAACP and its allies plan to press the Danvers Human Rights and Inclusion Committee to support the report’s recommendations and the Select Board to help implement them.