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Hate speech in Mass. school sports: Painful progress was made in 2021, but challenges remain

Controversies within the Duxbury football team and the Danvers boys' hockey team loomed large over 2021.Globe staff

For eight turbulent years, while Massachusetts averaged more than one hate crime a day, legislation to require public schools to teach students about the horrors of the Holocaust and other genocides languished on Beacon Hill.

No one incident or event generated enough momentum, not even a stunning survey in 2020 that found 35 percent of young adults in Massachusetts had no idea Auschwitz was a Nazi death camp.

Then came a turning point: an alarming surge of hate speech in Massachusetts high school athletics. As first reported by the Globe, the outbreak began in March with news that the Duxbury High football team had for years used “Auschwitz” and other Holocaust-related terms to call plays in games and practices.

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By the fall, numerous football fields across the state were hot spots for racist and homophobic taunts. And by November, when the Globe reported that Danvers town officials had for more than 16 months concealed alleged violent, racist, homophobic, and antisemitic misconduct by members of the 2019-20 boys’ hockey team, state leaders were pushing for action.

A milestone ensued: In early December, Governor Charlie Baker signed into law the state’s first mandate that every public middle school and high school teach about the Holocaust and other genocides.

Government officials and human rights leaders who shepherded the measure into law cited the Duxbury episode as a catalyst. They pointed to the incidents in Danvers and other communities as further evidence of the need for the initiative.

“A lot of the advocacy for the bill in the beginning was around national studies,” said Representative Alice Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat and cochair of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Education. “But the Duxbury incident really was a concrete example of, yes, we have a problem in Massachusetts. It definitely provided impetus.”

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The Baker administration, too, has spoken out about the alleged misconduct in school sports.

“There is no place for any form of hate in the Commonwealth, and Governor Baker was pleased to sign the genocide education bill to ensure all students in the Commonwealth are educated on these horrible incidents of the past,” said Anisha Chakrabarti, Baker’s deputy communications director.

The antisemitic language in Duxbury was exposed just five months after Attorney General Maura Healey issued guidance to schools about their legal obligation to prevent and address incidents of hate and bias. Healey, a former Harvard basketball captain, expressed dismay at the hate speech and the attempt by Danvers officials to keep secret the hockey team’s alleged misconduct.

Healey’s office has been looking into the Danvers matter since November. Her staff also consulted with the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, whose new director, Bob Baldwin, has pledged to wage a forceful effort to curb misconduct in school athletics.

“What we see happening in high school sports — the racism, bigotry, homophobia, and lasting mental health trauma — is a sad commentary on where we are today and a stark reminder of the leadership we need from adults to act as role models for our kids,” Healey said.

“It’s on all of us to do better.”

‘What we see happening in high school sports — the racism, bigotry, homophobia, and lasting mental health trauma — is a sad commentary on where we are today.’

Mass. AG Maura Healey

In November, community members held a vigil in Danvers in response to the allegations of misconduct by the 2019-20 boys' hockey team and antisemitic graffiti found in a local middle school.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Gain through pain

From the pain of hate speech in school sports has come other signs of progress. Some districts have held accountable administrators and coaches who failed to properly supervise student-athletes. Human rights programs have been implemented, residents have rallied, and community leaders have vowed to help break the cycle of prejudice.

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Duxbury in particular has made gains through education, community outreach, and at the football team itself. Under new head coach Matt Landolfi, the Duxbury team has tried to atone in part through community service, according to those familiar with their commitment.

Landolfi and his players helped stage the Duxbury Interfaith Council’s “Vigil for Hope and Healing.” They collected gift cards for a holiday food and gift drive, shoveled out homes for senior citizens, and helped prepare meals for the needy.

“Progress has definitely been made," said longtime resident Laura Neprud, a leader of the group Duxbury for All and the Interfaith Council. She is the immediate past president of Marshfield’s Congregation Shirat Hayam and an occupational therapist at the high school.

In a brief comment, Landolfi said, “I am reluctant to speak about the numerous steps we have taken together as a football program, district, and community over the last few months in order to preserve the authenticity of those actions.”

In the football team’s latest act of good will, less than 48 hours after a crushing 14-13 loss to Scituate in the Division 4 Super Bowl at Gillette Stadium, Landolfi and his players trucked to homes across Duxbury to pick up donated furniture and deliver it to a family of newly arrived refugees from Afghanistan.

“Lots of really good things are going on that never would have happened had this dramatic incident of antisemitism with the stupid play calls not come to light,” said the Rev. Catherine Cullen, president of the Interfaith Council. “As painful as that was, it has made a tremendous difference.”

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‘As painful as that was, it has made a tremendous difference.’

Rev. Catherine Cullen, president of Duxbury's Interfaith Council, on the allegations against the football team

Duxbury dealt swiftly with Dave Maimaron, the head football coach during the time of the Holocaust-related play calls. Maimaron was fired and has not returned to coaching. He also resigned from his teaching job at Duxbury High and now teaches at Mahar Regional School in Orange.

Others departed as well. Duxbury’s superintendent, John Antonucci, took a job in North Attleborough in the midst of the upheaval, athletic director Thom Holdgate’s contract was not renewed, and nearly all of Maimaron’s assistant coaches stepped down.

Duxbury was not alone in responding forcefully to hate speech. Newton South fired an assistant football coach who allegedly uttered a racial slur. Peabody Superintendent Josh Vadala said the high school football coaching staff would be disciplined after a player was found to have used racial and homophobic slurs and team members allegedly simulated sexual activity in the locker room.

And in South Easton, Luis Lopes, superintendent of Southeastern Regional Vocational Technical High School, accepted the football coach’s resignation after players and coaches allegedly shouted obscenities at their opponents from Upper Cape Regional Technical High School.

Elsewhere, however, issues and grievances remain unresolved. In Georgetown, a former federal prosecutor continues investigating allegations that the town’s high school football players, faculty, and staff uttered racial slurs to Roxbury Prep’s predominantly Black and Hispanic players and coaches during a September game.

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Roxbury Prep coach Willie McGinnis addresses his team a week after a fight broke out between his players and players from Georgetown. Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

At Xaverian Brothers High in Westwood, the school reported receiving “profoundly troubling” allegations that some students had taunted the Brockton High marching band and halftime performance group with racial and homophobic slurs during a football game there in November. Eight weeks later, Xaverian’s investigation is ongoing.

And the Globe reported Dec. 17 that Woburn parents are demanding action from school leaders and law enforcement after their 14-year-old son, a freshman of color on the high school football team, was allegedly punched and groped when nearly a dozen teammates accosted him in the locker room.

Gabe Lopes, a resident of Danvers, speaks in front of the school committee in the aftermath of a Globe report about alleged misconduct by the high school boys' hockey team.Matthew J Lee/Globe staff

Danvers remains unsettled

But nowhere do matters remain more unsettled than Danvers, where school Superintendent Lisa Dana and school board leaders who refused to disclose the hockey team’s alleged misconduct and hate speech have rebuffed calls for their resignations.

The school leaders instead issued a statement praising the alleged victim for coming forward, admitting their handling of the allegations traumatized the community, and pledging to try harder to improve the district’s culture.

But calls for their departures persist, and when Dana publicly spoke at length for the first time about the saga at a school board meeting in December, she made no reference to the alleged victim, but complained about a media “firestorm” that upset her and others.

Two weeks later, Dana took a leave of absence for unspecified medical reasons. It’s uncertain whether she will return, while the school district continues to experience disturbing incidents of hate speech.

Since the Globe report, swastikas have been discovered on three separate occasions in bathrooms at the high school and middle school. And a fight broke out when a high school student confronted a member of the wrestling team over his alleged use of racial language.

The fight led to the discovery of a team group chat that contained hateful and biased language, according to principal Adam Federico, who suspended the wrestling team during an investigation and disciplined those involved.

Many Danvers residents have called for the school district to replace athletic director Andrew St. Pierre, who supervised the hockey and wrestling teams. Residents also continue to demand that the former hockey coach, police Sergeant Stephen Baldassare, be reassigned from his position supervising the town’s school resource officers.

Baldassare resigned from coaching in July. He had been rehired by Dana the previous December to coach the 2020-21 season even though a special investigation into the abuse allegations was still underway.

Baldassare has denied knowing about the alleged misconduct. But school sports organizations and student safety specialists say coaches are responsible for monitoring their players and preventing abuse.

Danvers Town Manager Steve Bartha said he and Police Chief James Lovell have met several times with Baldassare “to discuss both past events and the challenges that lie ahead.”

“We’re trying to be diligent in our approach to make sure that whatever decision we make positions us to move forward in a positive and productive manner,” Bartha said.

State Representative Sally Kerans, who serves on the Danvers Human Rights and Inclusion Committee, said school and town leaders need to grasp the depth of the discomfort that many people of color in the community feel. A number of Black parents of Danvers schoolchildren recently addressed the committee.

“What I heard those parents say was, ‘Yes, there is racism in Danvers and in the schools, and we’ve lived it, and you’re not dealing with it,’ ” Kerans said. “It was important for the school leaders, the committee, and town administrators to hear that very forcefully.”

The developments have given rise to a new wave of political activism in Danvers. The next school board election comes in May, when the seat of Arthur Skarmeas, the committee’s most outspoken defender of withholding the hockey allegations from the public, opens. Skarmeas has said he will not seek reelection.

Two women who were elected in May to the five-member board, Robin Doherty and Alice Campbell, called in November for placing Dana on administrative leave for her handling of the hockey episode, but they were unable to gain sufficient support. A new member could shift the balance of power.

Robin Doherty, a new Danvers school committee member, has been calling for the sidelining of the school superintendent. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Meanwhile, Robert Trestan, New England director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he has seen signs that Danvers, like other communities, will continue its effort to curb institutional prejudice and hate.

“The main thing is, they are on the pathway, even though it may be a long pathway,” Trestan said. “We’re counting on community leaders to see it through, whether it’s on the school side or the political side.”


Bob Hohler can be reached at robert.hohler@globe.com.