DANVERS — Civil rights leaders, elected officials, and residents decried school and police officials in this North Shore town on Monday for concealing allegations of violent, racist, and homophobic locker room behavior by members of the 2019-2020 boys varsity high school hockey team, whose coach was a prominent Danvers police sergeant.
At an evening School Committee meeting, longtime school Superintendent Lisa Dana became a target of the outcry, as board member Robin Doherty called for her to be placed on immediate leave, while others said anyone responsible for the district’s handling of the alleged misconduct should resign.
The outcry followed a Boston Globe report over the weekend on an effort by town officials to withhold details of the locker room behavior and offensive language allegedly used by members of the team in group texts.
Gabe Lopes, a Black resident whose children attend the Danvers schools, told the board the district needs a sweeping change of leadership to provide “a fresh start.”
“Please step down,” Lopes said, addressing Dana and other school leaders during a tense and at times contentious meeting.
With about 35 people in attendance, some carrying signs protesting the district’s response to the allegations, the board went into executive session after Doherty called for the five-member panel to vote on placing Dana on immediate administrative leave “while the School Committee can ascertain the best path moving forward for the administration and students.”
Board member Alice Campbell, who like Doherty was first elected in May, seconded the motion.
“It is unacceptable that not a single adult was held accountable,” Campbell said. “With a lack of real action, we failed our students, parents, caregivers, and community members . . . we cannot accept no further action.”
Dana told the board she is committed to improving the district’s climate of diversity, equity, and inclusion and listed steps she has taken in response to the alleged misconduct. She did not address the call to place her on leave. The committee will hold another executive session next Monday to discuss the motion further.
In a Facebook post earlier in the day, US Representative Seth Moulton said the Globe report “shows that there has been a clear failure of leadership and courage at all levels, from the coaches to administrators. This negligence only contributed to the perpetuation of this toxic and harmful culture. If Danvers wants to move forward from this, they will have to do so with transparency, accountability and confronting this issue head on.”
Town officials learned of the hockey team’s alleged misconduct in June 2020. They later compiled two investigative reports and commissioned a third but have since blacked out references in those reports to the alleged locker room conduct and group text chat.
Board member Arthur Skarmeas, who served on the committee during the investigations, cautioned against “scapegoating’' anyone and defended the board’s handling of the allegations.
“If you think we haven’t done anything about this for the past year and a half and took it lightly or brushed it off or swept it under the rug, that’s a bunch of crap,” Skarmeas said.
Eric Crane, the committee chair, also defended the board, saying school leaders were legally obligated to protect the privacy of students and employees.
A member of the 2019-20 hockey team told the Globe that he reported to police, school officials, and a special investigator that two teammates physically restrained him 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 locker room rituals.
The rituals were allegedly known on the team as “Hard R Fridays,” the “R” referring to the final letter of the n-word.
The player said he also reported that a player touched him inappropriately after the team stripped naked and turned off the lights during a locker room ritual known as “Gay Tuesdays.”
The police sergeant who coached the team, Stephen Baldassare, has denied knowing anything about the locker room behavior or offensive texts, according to town officials.
Baldassare resigned from his coaching position in July. He was the high school resource officer when he began coaching the team in 2015. He now serves in the police department’s juvenile division.
Robert Trestan, New England regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, has helped many school districts confront hate speech, discrimination, and abuse.
“When schools conduct an investigation, they owe it to the community to be clear and comprehensive about its scope, and report out the findings and its commitment to implementing any recommendations,” Trestan said. “Community stakeholders have a right to know what happened and what steps are being taken to ensure that every aspect of the school environment, from the ice to the hallways, are free from all forms of racism, antisemitism and hate.”
Addressing the school board, a woman whose son was a freshman on the 2019-20 team and remains on the team defended Baldassare and said her son saw nothing inappropriate in the locker room. She said Baldassare’s detractors have falsely branded him with a “a scarlet letter’' and caused mental anguish for her son and other players who never misbehaved.
Robin Healy, who is Crane’s wife, told the board she believed the alleged victim’s account and suspected that other players may also have been abused. But as “appalled” as she was by the accusations, she expressed sympathy for players who did nothing wrong but felt tainted by association.
Bob Hohler can be reached at email@example.com. Michael Silverman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.