Danvers school officials, beset by a leadership crisis, acknowledged for the first time Tuesday the damage they caused the community by mishandling their public response to alleged violent racist and homophobic locker room misconduct by the 2019-20 high school boys’ hockey team.
After more than 16 months of refusing to inform the public that a hockey player had been targeted for abuse in the team locker room, Danvers School Superintendent Lisa Dana and the School Committee issued a joint statement hailing the alleged victim for standing up to the abuse and effectively apologizing to the community for its lack of transparency.
“We applaud the young person who courageously came forward to shine a light on what is alleged to have occurred and hope he knows that his actions will lead to change,” the statement said. “We also recognize that our community has been traumatized. We regret that our communication to the public, upon the conclusion of the investigations, fell short in terms of emphasizing the seriousness of what occurred and the district’s response, causing concern and dismay regarding a very serious set of incidents of racism, homophobia, and bullying.”
Dana and the board’s attempt to regain the public’s trust comes as Attorney General Maura Healey seeks further information about the town’s handling of the allegations and as civil rights groups, elected officials, and the Danvers Teachers’ Association assail their response to the crisis, with some calling for numerous town leaders to resign.
The furor has followed a Boston Globe report on Nov. 6 that detailed the effort by town officials to withhold that the hockey player reported to police and school investigators that he was beaten by a teammate for refusing to shout the n-word in a ritual known to the team as “Hard R Fridays” and was touched inappropriately by another teammate in a ritual the team called “Gay Tuesdays.”
The team was coached by a longtime Danvers police sergeant, Stephen Baldassare, who had served for many years as a school resource officer and now supervises the town’s school resource officers.
Baldassare has denied knowing anything about the alleged misconduct or about most of his players participating in a group text chat laced with virulent racist, homophobic, and antisemitic hate speech and images. He has since resigned.
Police and school officials each compiled investigative reports after interviewing the alleged victim, but they refused to disclose what transpired, citing privacy laws protecting students and staff. And yet even before a third investigation by an outside attorney was completed, the school district rehired Baldassare to coach the high school’s 2020-21 team, with Dana’s office stating in informing him of his new contract, “We are grateful to you for your dedication to our students.”
Only in general terms did Danvers school officials publicly address the hockey team’s behavior. They never cited the player’s abuse complaint or the severity of the rituals or the alleged hate speech.
In their statement Tuesday they said: “While the administration and School Committee openly discussed this topic at many School Committee meetings, a thoughtful and conscious decision was made to withhold specific details of the investigation to protect the students involved. We are committed to doing better in the future in our timely and responsive communications to our school community, while also upholding the rights of privacy to which individuals are legally entitled.”
Dana led the district’s response to the allegations, supported by the former School Committee chairman, David Thomson, the current chairman, Eric Crane, and members of the board at the time investigators interviewed the alleged victim. One of those members, Arthur Skarmeas, remains on the committee.
In a testy school board meeting last week, Skarmeas defiantly defended withholding details of the allegations, calling assertions that the committee had failed to properly address the allegations and inform the community about them “a bunch of crap.”
He also attacked the media for pursuing the information.
“The Globe wants to sell papers,” Skarmeas said. “We care about the kids. The Globe doesn’t care about the kids.”
The composition of the school board changed in May when two new members filled open seats, Robin Doherty and Alice Campbell. They demanded transparency and called last week for Dana to be placed on administrative leave for her handling of the matter.
The joint statement by Dana and the board said Doherty and Campbell “have added an eye-opening perspective on the crucial need for transparency and our collective efforts going forward.”
The statement follows a closed-door board meeting Monday to consider whether Dana should be placed on leave. Rather than do so, the committee chose to keep her on the job and issue a statement seeking to regain the public’s confidence in their leadership.
Its statement read: “We have all learned that as a school district, we must redouble our efforts to do all that we can from an educational standpoint to establish a culture where our students and our staff know that acts of racism, homophobia, antisemitism, bullying or conduct which in any way defines people other than by their character, simply has no place in our schools. While these issues are being felt in many other communities, we must do better here in Danvers.”
Bob Hohler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.