Fourteen-year-old Johnathan Coucelos, a freshman football player at Woburn Memorial High School, had just finished dressing after a game in September when nearly a dozen teammates swarmed and trapped him in a corner of the locker room, a video recording shows.
Vividly clear in the video, which his family shared with The Boston Globe, are teammates spraying Coucelos with water and throwing water bottles at him. One player is seen punching him, and another is heard shouting, “Take his [stuff],” before his Apple watch is ripped from his wrist.
Shielded mostly from view is the abuse that Coucelos allegedly suffered next in the frenzy. One teammate is seen bending toward Coucelos, who said in an interview with his parents and attorney present that the player yanked down his pants and grabbed his genitals, before the group left him standing in the corner partially naked, soaked, and traumatized.
The episode is the latest in a wave of troubling alleged misconduct in Massachusetts high school sports, a string of cases that have shaken communities from Duxbury to Danvers and beyond and have seized the attention of human rights leaders and government officials.
Coucelos said he immediately reported the incident to an assistant coach. His parents, Kevin and Jeanny Coucelos, said Johnathan later described the episode in detail in an interview with the Middlesex district attorney’s office. And the family’s lawyer, Peter Hahn, said Johnathan testified at length about the case in Lowell Juvenile Court, where a judge issued a six-month harassment prevention order against the student who allegedly groped him.
The other student denied at the hearing that he sexually assaulted Johnathan, but the judge found by a preponderance of the evidence that an indecent assault and battery occurred, constituting grounds for the protective order, Hahn said.
For Johnathan, the locker room mayhem marked only the beginning of his anguish. Nearly three months later, he has withdrawn from Woburn High School, fearing for his safety, he said, after enduring additional assaults, threats, bullying, and intimidation, including a text from a football teammate that stated, “You really wanna get raped again don’t you.”
But no criminal charges have been filed yet, no coach has been held accountable, and the sophomore player who is alleged to have sexually groped him remained on the football team for the rest of the season through Woburn’s game against its Thanksgiving rival Winchester at Fenway Park.
The Globe does not identify victims of alleged sexual assaults unless they give their consent.
With the case remains under investigation, Hahn and Johnathan’s parents said the school, police, and district attorney’s office have failed to adequately protect a boy who for the love of football has found himself repeatedly victimized and frightened.
“It’s just outrageous that there are no charges,” Hahn said. “The more I find out about the situation, I wonder what I’m going to find out next about how the school has mishandled this, how the police have mishandled it, how the DA’s office has mishandled it.
“There is no justice for Johnathan,” he said.
‘The more I find out about the situation, I wonder what I’m going to find out next about how the school has mishandled this, how the police have mishandled it, how the DA’s office has mishandled it.’
Peter Hahn, the Coucelos's lawyer
In a statement, Woburn School Superintendent Matt Crowley said, “We acknowledge and support the student and family that had the strength to come forward to report this deeply troubling matter. We wish to state, without reservation, that the Woburn Public Schools took this matter seriously as soon as we learned about it and that our response was comprehensive and thorough.”
The Woburn police referred questions to the district attorney’s office, which issued a statement saying its child protection unit and Woburn police have conducted multiple interviews of students, faculty, and coaches, and have examined video footage, text messages, and social media.
“Our office is aware that a series of altercations and threats are alleged to have taken place between the parties since the initial incident,” the Middlesex DA’s office said. “Police have continued, as recently as two days ago, to receive new information which has required follow up investigation. Interviews of additional potential witnesses are ongoing.”
Once the criminal investigation has concluded, Crowley said, the school district will conduct a full administrative review of the entire matter, possibly with external consultants.
The seeds of Johnathan’s distress were sown early in the football season. During a varsity game Sept. 10, he was among a group of underclassmen in the program who had gathered under the stadium bleachers, against team rules. Johnathan said a boy who had bullied him for several years repeatedly poked him, causing him to defend himself.
A fight ensued. Police responded. And the coaches disciplined all the junior varsity players and freshmen on the team by confining them to the school cafeteria for the first half of Woburn’s next varsity home game.
Johnathan said his teammates attacked him Sept. 25 to retaliate for the cafeteria punishment. He said no coaches intervened when a group of sophomores and juniors charged from the varsity locker room down the hall into the freshmen locker room and converged on him.
High school and youth coaches are considered responsible for supervising student-athletes and preventing abuse. Hours later on the days of the alleged attack, Johnathan said, head varsity coach Jack Belcher gathered the team and said, without directly referring to the incident, that anyone who committed an assault and battery or sexual assault would be kicked off the team.
As it turned out, however, the school suspended the two players who allegedly punched and sexually molested Johnathan for five days each, according to his parents and lawyer. The player they accused of punching Johnathan did not return to the team, but the other player was welcomed back.
“What must not be lost here is the fact that our obligation to provide a high-quality education to all children in Woburn includes both victims and offenders,” Crowley said. “The law and the Commonwealth’s educational guidelines make this very clear.”
Johnathan and his parents, who are of Puerto Rican and Portuguese descent and identify as people of color, said they believe bias has played a role in the school’s handling of the incident. The player who allegedly sexually assaulted him is white.
“If it was the other way around, I’m pretty sure I would have been expelled,” Johnathan said.
Crowley said the district responded “promptly and comprehensively” to the locker room incident, taking “immediate corrective and remedial actions against other students based on the information gathered.”
What’s more, he said, the district has worked “tirelessly” with the family to implement measures to ensure the student’s safety in school.
Yet Johnathan’s trauma only intensified after the locker room incident. He said he was repeatedly bullied at school for not defending himself more aggressively and for being regarded as a snitch.
On Oct. 18, he said, he was punched several times in a school bathroom by a student who taunted him about not sticking up for himself.
On Nov. 9, a football player allegedly sent him several offensive texts, including one that asked if he wanted to be raped again. Another stated, “Did you get brain damage from being raped?”
On Nov. 10, a former team member allegedly entered Johnathan’s Spanish class, grabbed him by the shirt, and warned him to stop snitching.
And on Dec. 1, Johnathan was riding a school bus when a student allegedly called him a snitch and a pedophile and punched him in the face.
His parents with the Globe shared screenshots of several other offensive, threatening, and intimidating texts he received. They said the abuse has not abated despite the district’s safety plan, and they no longer could risk sending him to Woburn High School.
Since last week, Johnathan has studied at home through Google Classroom, while his parents try to enroll him in a school where he feels safe.
Bob Hohler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.