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Amid outrage over racist and homophobic allegations, Danvers prays for healing

Danvers community members gathered for a vigil Saturday in response to the recent spate of antisemitic graffiti at Holten-Richmond Middle School and reports of hazing by the 2019-20 Danvers High School boys hockey team.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

DANVERS — Following revelations of racist and homophobic behavior on the high school hockey team and the discovery of hate graffiti in its middle school, the town’s faith community gathered Saturday evening to pray for healing.

Religious leaders convened a vigil at the town’s gazebo on the edge of Mill Pond that drew about 80 community members, many of whom have children in the schools, to quietly reflect on the furor that has engulfed this North Shore town.

“I think people really wanted to come together and say that this isn’t OK ... and that we’re here for you and we want to stand with you and cheer for you, for all the kids who felt dehumanized,” said the Rev. Carol Strecker of the Northshore Unitarian Universalist Church.

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“Children learn what they live — this doesn’t happen in a vacuum, ” she said. “They learn it somewhere, and so it’s sort of upon us as the adults to figure out where that comes from, too. It’s not just about the kids. It’s about how we are with each other.”

The 45-minute vigil, organized by the Danvers Human Rights and Inclusion Committee and the Danvers Interfaith Partnership, followed weeks of intense public scrutiny of Danvers school leaders’ response to reports of hazing by the Danvers High School boys hockey team in the ‘19-20 season, and the discovery of swastikas in middle school bathrooms over the last two weeks.

Dr. Dutrochet Djoko, chairman of the Danvers Human Rights and Inclusion Committee, urged the audience to use “this vigil of inclusion” as the first step toward the “Danvers of tomorrow.”

“It’s going to be a journey,” he said. “It’s not going to be fixed overnight, it’s not going to be fixed tomorrow, because it did not start overnight and it did not start yesterday. So it’s gonna take time and hard work, and it’s going to be uncomfortable at times.”

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“And one more thing,” he said. “We haven’t seen the last incident.”

Attendees stood bundled in winter coats and knit hats on a cold November evening. Some held small candles that illuminated their faces as dusk set in. Others sat on benches, quietly listening as faith leaders prayed and spoke of the need for respect and inclusion.

“I think everyone who is here tonight, all of us stand for love and for compassionate action,” said Rabbi Alison Adler of Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly. “But I ask you not to go away once the news cycle changes and we move on to something else. Educate and read and talk and think outside the box, but also ask: how are our Black, gay, Jewish kids? How are all of our kids doing in the midst of this?”

State Senator Joan Lovely and state Representative Sally Kerans stood alongside clergy in the gazebo. In the crowd stood a couple of Danvers police officers, including Chief James Lovell.

Lovely and Kerans each expressed their gratitude for the leaders who convened the vigil and the community members who turned out.

“My deepest hope is that the kids who have experienced this ... know that we are here and we are holding them in our hearts,” said Kerans, a Danvers resident. “We hear them, and the community will hold them close.”

The vigil capped a disturbing week for Danvers Public Schools.

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Students at the Holten-Richmond Middle School found the swastika in a bathroom on Thursday and reported it to school officials, Superintendent Lisa Dana said in a letter to the school community.

It was the second time that the Nazi symbol was found in a school bathroom. The first instance was reported Nov. 9. Police are investigating the incidents, officials have said.

John Ferraro, who attended with his wife and two children, both of whom are in elementary school, said it is incumbent upon parents to talk to their children about respect for all races.

“I think there just needs to be a dialogue, [because] I know a lot of times kids don’t really know what they’re saying, they don’t know what the meaning is behind a swastika or a lynching or things like that, especially in middle school,” said Ferraro, who is Jewish. “I think it’s our job as parents to educate our kids on this and hopefully they’ll make the right decisions.”

The second swastika was found two days after Dana and the Danvers School Committee issued a statement acknowledging that they “fell short” in their public response to allegations involving the boys’ varsity hockey team at Danvers High School.

The incidents involving the hockey team emerged following a Globe report on Nov. 6 that detailed a former player’s allegations of a locker room environment of violent, racist, and homophobic misconduct, as well as an effort by school officials to conceal the results of investigations into the team from the public.

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Jen St. Arneault, who attended Danvers High School in the early 1990s, said school leaders must improve their public response to misconduct, or else the offensive behavior may continue.

“The fact that there was no transparency, that there were no visible repercussions ... it gives [students] a license to escalate,” said St. Arneault, who attended the vigil with a former classmate.

Annlauren Djoko, a 17-year-old senior at Danvers High School, said she was shocked to hear about the hockey team’s locker room culture and didn’t want to lay the blame solely on the students.

“The main cause for all of this is ignorance,” she said. “I don’t think they’re inherently trying to make other people feel bad or feel like they don’t belong. But because of that ignorance there, they don’t understand the [weight] of what it is they’re saying.”


Nick Stoico can be reached at nick.stoico@globe.com.