.jpg photo of Danvers High School

MA AG SAYS DANVERS SCHOOL OFFICIALS FAILED THE HOCKEY TEAM EVERY WAY POSSIBLE

Attorney General’s investigation faults Danvers officials in hockey scandal

DANVERS, MA  –  Danvers school officials failed in many ways to properly respond to racist, homophobic, antisemitic, and sexually abusive behavior in the high school boys’ ice hockey program, creating “a toxic team culture,” according to an investigation by the state attorney general’s office.

In response to the inquiry, Danvers school leaders signed a resolution Monday agreeing to develop additional initiatives aimed at preventing and responding to bullying, harassment, and biased misconduct.  Under the resolution, the attorney general’s office concluded its investigation without issuing any formal factual or legal findings but will oversee the new initiatives through the 2023-24 school year.

The investigation was the first into a high school athletic program during Attorney General Maura Healey’s seven years in office.

“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,” Healey said in a statement.  “With today’s resolution, 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.”

Healey’s civil rights division launched the investigation after The Boston Globe reported in November that Danvers school and police officials had for more than 16 months concealed from the public details of alleged violent racist and homophobic bullying in the hockey program, as well as a group text chat among members of the 2019-20 team that was rife with deeply offensive racial, homophobic, and antisemitic language and images.

Danvers school officials, in agreeing to the resolution, did not contest numerous faults cited by the attorney general’s office in the town’s handling of the episode.  The attorney general’s office said the school district cooperated fully with the investigation and agreed voluntarily to the resolution.

The Danvers case is part of a wave of troubling alleged misconduct over the last year in Massachusetts high school sports that have shaken communities and captured the attention of human rights leaders and government officials.

“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,” said Robert Trestan, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.  “We welcome Danvers’ acceptance of responsibility and commitment to change, which represents a path forward for the entire community.”

The Globe focused on alleged misconduct involving the 2019-20 Danvers hockey team. But the attorney general’s investigation found that Danvers police Sergeant Stephen Baldassare, who coached the team from 2015 to 2021, permitted problems to develop several years earlier and to persist because he “failed to properly supervise the team and locker room in violation of district policies,” according to a letter Healey’s office sent last week to Danvers school leaders requesting they sign the resolution.

What’s more, the Danvers athletic department, led by Andrew St. Pierre, who is not named in the letter, regularly reviewed Baldassare’s performance but failed to identify any problems with the team culture, the letter states.

Baldassare has denied knowing about the alleged misconduct, and he has continued to work with Danvers students as supervisor of the town’s school resource police officers, despite calls for him to be reassigned.  But as the attorney general’s office last week prepared to publicly recommend his reassignment,  Baldassare agreed to accept another role in the Police Department at the end of the academic year.  Baldassare could not be reached for comment.

St. Pierre, however, remains on the job, unlike other school officials who were involved in the controversy, including longtime Superintendent Lisa Dana, who went out on medical leave in December and agreed last month to resign before the next academic year.

It was Dana’s office that permitted Baldassare to continue coaching the hockey team even after school officials became aware of the alleged misconduct — a decision the attorney general’s office noted in its resolution letter.

Troubling, too, the letter states, was the school district’s handling of “multiple, overlapping investigations” of the hockey allegations.

A member of the 2019-20 team told the Globe, the police, and school officials teammates restrained him in the locker room and beat his face with a plastic sex toy because he refused to shout the n-word as part of a ritual.  In another ritual, the player said, he was touched on the buttocks after team leaders directed players to strip naked in the dark.

Danvers police attributed the conduct to “immature behavior” and “poor attempts at humor” and determined no crimes occurred. .The attorney general’s inquiry, led by Abigail Taylor, chief of the civil rights division, and Assistant Attorney General Jon Burke, found school officials then may have responded inadequately to the misconduct allegations based on the police findings.

“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,” the letter to the school district states.

Only after the school board later launched an additional investigation by an outside attorney did the extent of the hockey team’s problems become clearer, the letter indicates.

“The outside investigator concluded that misconduct on the team was significantly more severe than originally identified by either” the school district or police, the letter states.

Yet even then school officials apparently failed to initiate proper disciplinary procedures for the alleged perpetrators, according to the resolution letter.

Healey’s office also challenged the school district’s public statements that the hockey players could not be disciplined for alleged racist, homophobic, and antisemitic texts because they were private, off-campus communications.  The attorney general’s letter asserts the district did have legal standing to sanction the students because the group texts were used by players to coordinate team activities and included messages that were exchanged on team bus trips.

“Moreover, schools have the authority to discipline students for even ostensibly private speech that involves, encourages, or fosters an environment that results in bullying or harassment,” the letter states, citing Massachusetts case law.

Danvers school leaders also were faulted for not effectively communicating with the public about the hockey allegations.

Under the resolution, Danvers agreed to submit its new policies and procedures for the attorney general’s approval before implementing them.  The district also must train coaches, teachers, and other staff on policies involving complaints, investigations, discipline, and communicating with the public.

In addition, Danvers is required through the 2023-24 school year to report any additional incidents of bullying, harassment, or biased misconduct to the attorney general’s office.

Last month, the North Shore NAACP completed its own investigation of the scandal and called for changes.

“We are grateful that the AG’s office proactively investigated this case and negotiated an appropriate resolution,” chapter president Natalie Bower said.  “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.”