In firing longtime hockey coach John Blake this spring, Duxbury school officials acknowledged that administrators had received a series of complaints about the teacher, but said they never had enough evidence to take action.
For several local parents, the claim rang hollow, and they are now pointing to a number of sexual misconduct accusations through the years that they say should’ve sparked more scrutiny by the school.
One girl reported to a teacher in 2019 that Blake solicited her to perform extra squats in gym class, while sharing “creepy” comments about her form, her parents said. Another parent complained that Blake had berated male players in the locker room while they were naked. That same parent — a former attorney and fixture in the local hockey world — wrote a terse letter to officials in 2017, capturing the concern of several former players and parents regarding Blake.
“His methods not only border on emotional and psychological abuse, but may in fact be abuse of both an emotional and sexual nature,” the parent, Brian Cook, wrote in 2017. “If at some future time these allegations are confirmed, this letter will be represented as an opportunity to act that was ignored.”
The school’s long, troubled history with Blake burst open in recent months after Duxbury parents Joseph and Melissa Foley sued the district in March, alleging Blake’s sexual abuse of their son in the early 2000s led to his overdose death. .
School officials, already juggling another controversy concerning the high school football coach’s behavior, fired Blake in April, citing the results of a six-month investigation.
The simultaneous school coaching scandals have upended the small, well-off South Shore community, where athletics are a source of local pride and high school players regularly bring home local and state championships.
Amid the local drama, Superintendent John Antonucci, who presided over both recent scandals, announced he was leaving to lead the school district in North Attleborough, with little public scrutiny from his new district on his past leadership.
In a statement, Duxbury school district spokesman Matt Ellis said officials had done everything they could, given privacy laws and employment policies, to keep students safe and share what they could with families. But many of the parents behind the complaints said they were never informed of any follow-up or never knew that the coach had been the focus of other complaints.
Blake’s lawyer, Kevin Reddington, declined to comment. Duxbury Public Schools declined to make Antonucci or other school leaders available for an interview.
Aside from the complaints already made public, “we received no other specific complaints regarding inappropriate coaching or teaching behavior against Blake,” Ellis said in a statement. “Most importantly, even after all the publicity the Foley case has generated, no one else has come forward to claim John Blake sexually assaulted them in the Duxbury Public Schools.”
Blake, 47, first began teaching and coaching in the late 1990s and became Duxbury High School’s head hockey coach in 2003. He also taught physical education at Duxbury Middle School, seeing thousands of students cycle through his classroom over the years.
The alleged sexual abuse of Parker Foley began in 2006, according to the Foley family’s lawsuit. The parents claim Blake held their son back from gym class repeatedly and abused him on several occasions, escalating from inappropriate touching to rape and forced oral sex, before the younger Foley eventually brought a knife to school and threatened Blake.
The parents, who declined through their lawyer to comment for this story, said they first learned of the abuse a few years before Parker Foley died at age 27.
Blake has strongly denied the allegations, and his lawyer said after the suit was filed that the former coach had passed a polygraph test during which he was asked if he had sexually abused the Foleys’ son.
Through the late 2000s and early 2010s, other parents also had other issues with Blake’s behavior, said Cook, a longtime Duxbury parent whose son briefly played on Blake’s hockey team.
Cook, a former sports lawyer who helped build a nearby hockey rink, said he regularly saw Blake yell at his athletes in a way that felt inappropriate. “He’d tell them they were worthless, tell them they wasted his time,” Cook recalled.
He also heard some players and parents describe more uncomfortable behavior like sexually charged comments after practice, he said, even once criticizing the size of some students’ private parts while in the locker room.
In July 2017, Cook wrote a letter to Antonucci hinting at his concerns broadly.
“Former players describe a painful experience but few will detail beyond a sense of humiliation what transpired,” he wrote to the new administrator. “Much of that humiliation involved berating players usually while naked. . . . I realize without formal charges there is little that you can do but I would ask you if you are interested to hear from many other former players and parents about this man who may be a menace.”
Cook said he also met with Blake and athletic director Thom Holdgate to raise his concerns about Blake’s actions, though that conversation mostly concerned Blake’s coaching behavior. None of the men followed up after the meeting or the letter, Cook said.
A Duxbury Public Schools spokesman said that after receiving Cook’s letter, the district started a “fact-finding process, which included conversations with Blake, Mr. Holdgate and our legal counsel.”
“The complaints centered on Blake’s coaching style and included an allegation that he yelled at players in the locker room while they were changing clothes. Cook characterized that as ‘sexual abuse,’ but our findings did not substantiate that,” the district spokesman said. “We found Cook’s allegations to be meritless, but we spoke with Blake to remind him of his obligation to follow District guidelines governing behavior toward student athletes.”
Less than a year later, in early 2018, Joseph Foley sent an anonymous letter to the district outlining parts of the alleged abuse of his son. Blake was suspended briefly.
Antonucci said later that because the letter did not identify Parker Foley or provide sufficient details about the abuse, investigations by the school district, police, and the state Department of Children and Families were unable to substantiate the allegation.
The reasons for Blake’s absence from school were not publicly disclosed — parents had no idea of the school’s investigation. Administrators asked Gerald Moffett, a volunteer hockey coach who oversaw the program in the interim, to keep quiet about Blake’s temporary absence, Moffett said during a public listening forum in late May.
“When the first allegation against the hockey coach came out, what they did was they removed him, left me alone to coach a state playoff game by myself, and the only words from the administration were, ‘If the media comes to you, decline comment,’ ” he said.
Though Blake was eventually reinstated, seven months later the high school principal abruptly ended Moffett’s contract, he added.
“When asked why I’m being removed, he had no answer,” Moffett recalled at the same meeting. “I think with the whole town, the administration is sweeping stuff under the rugs.”
In response, the school district told the Globe that all coaches operate on annual contracts and that it opted not to renew Moffett’s appointment as volunteer coach.
Blake faced yet another allegation in 2019, parents said, when a middle school student informed a teacher that she had been asked to perform extra squats for Blake during class. The coach asked her to “go lower” and remarked that “the next two are for me” while watching her from behind, her parents later said in a public forum.
Her parents also said that it was their daughter, not the district, who eventually told them of the incident.
A subsequent investigation — which the district said involved interviews with 16 people including another teacher present in the class — “yielded no credible evidence” that Blake broke district policy, a school spokesman said.
Blake continued to coach and teach in Duxbury without further complaint until November 2020 when, weeks after their son’s death, the Foleys reached back out to the school district. This time, they shared more information about the alleged abuse.
The school launched another investigation, led by local lawyer Regina Ryan, and placed Blake again on leave. Again, the school did not tell parents why.
The investigation ended in early March and concluded that Blake had violated school policy. The district fired Blake at the beginning of April, as a public outcry mounted over the allegations.
Cari Simon, a lawyer who works on sexual harassment and abuse cases in K-12 schools and colleges but was not involved in Duxbury, said schools often lean on employee privacy to keep complaints private and deal with complaints individually.
But schools have a responsibility to take meaningful action, whether it is limiting a teacher or coach’s contact with students or other disciplinary measures. “It doesn’t negate their responsibility that the potential risk is addressed,” she said.
“Just doing nothing and not telling anyone keeps the community at risk,” Simon said.
In a public virtual listening session last month, several parents said they were frustrated.
The father of the student at the center of the 2019 gym class complaint said the school district’s investigation was only done at their urging.
“The investigator refused to interview any other students in the class. We were told it was on us to bring forward witnesses,” he recounted.
Another parent questioned why Blake’s annual contract to be a coach had not been reviewed more stringently. She said one of her own sons had also had issues with Blake, though they were not as severe as other complaints since made public.
Members of the School Committee, which hosted the session, stayed largely silent to make room for public comments. But the chair did enforce one rule — urging parents to not discuss members of the school community, including the former coach, by name.
“Share your sentiments and your concerns,” she said. “But please be careful about the details.”
Hanna Krueger of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
Elizabeth Koh can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @elizabethrkoh.