State officials mobilized last spring as a tumultuous wave of misconduct in Massachusetts high school athletics wreaked long-lasting damage on students, staff, and institutions.
As the crisis escalated, more and more students seeking camaraderie in interscholastic sports instead were reporting being traumatized by violent bullying, hazing, and racial, homophobic, and anti-semitic abuse.
Criminal charges were lodged against some athletes. Coaches, athletic directors, and top administrators were losing their jobs, and fractured communities were reeling, triggering pleas for help, before state law enforcement and education authorities assembled with school leaders and civil rights groups to develop strategies to ease the anguish.
Now comes the reckoning — and the early returns aren’t promising. The prospects for success are fragile at best, with the initiative largely relying on aspiration and education rather than tougher policies to better hold schools, staff, and students accountable for misconduct.
On the other hand, there have been no incidents of abuse reported in the school year just begun. It’s very early, of course, but some are hopeful that the message is out and that heightened awareness among school officials may have shifted the climate.
“Fingers are crossed,” said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “The situation is not foolproof by any stretch.”
The disturbing rash of misconduct last year – from the alleged racial and homophobic hazing assaults on a hockey player at Danvers High School to the beating of a 14-year-old boy by a throng of football teammates at Woburn Memorial High School – compelled Attorney General Maura Healey in April to convene a conference of policymakers to address the abuses.
The conference – “Addressing Hate in School Athletics: A Call to Action” – produced pledges to work collaboratively for change from Healey, State Education Commissioner Jeff Riley, the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, organizations representing school superintendents and administrators, as well as the Anti-Defamation League and Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of Sport in Society.
Additional action may emerge from a second conference, which initially was scheduled for late summer but now has been pushed back to October at the earliest. A series of regional training sessions for high school sports staff and administrators by the Northeastern center are due to follow.
“This moment is an opportunity to make sure that school athletics, and our society as a whole, in the face of hate and bias, display leadership and create a permanent culture of inclusivity,” Healey said in a statement to the Globe. “My office will continue to empower superintendents, principals, athletic directors, coaches, referees, and others to fulfill their potential in building a positive, safe, and supportive environment on their teams and in their school communities.”
It remains to be seen how energetically communities respond. Two initiatives launched by the MIAA before the April conference have produced mixed results. One has required the organization’s 374 member schools, which serve more than 215,000 participants in interscholastic sports, to report incidents of abuse. The new database has helped the organization identify and respond more effectively to trouble, according to MIAA executive director Bob Baldwin.
In several instances, Baldwin said, he and other MIAA officials have met privately with teams that have instigated abuse or have themselves been targeted, thanks in part to information received through the reporting process.
The other new rule, however, has been more challenging to enforce: a requirement that all student-athletes, coaches, and athletic directors every year complete an online course titled, “Implicit Bias,” produced by the National Federation of State High School Associations, as well as read and sign the MIAA’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Pledge.
Conservative groups protested, voicing opposition to the MIAA compelling allegiance to diversity and inclusion policies. The Massachusetts Family Institute, a nonprofit advocacy group that describes itself as “dedicated to strengthening the family and affirming the Judeo-Christian values upon which it is based,” issued a statement two days after the April conference, saying it had received complaints from coaches, student-athletes, and parents.
“Some reported that they complied with the MIAA’s mandate out of fear of losing a coaching position or not being permitted to participate on an athletic team,” the institute’s president, Andrew Beckwith said in a statement at the time. “In other cases, student-athletes and their parents chose not to participate because they could not in good conscience sign the pledge.”
The MIAA, under pressure, stopped mandating compliance, reluctantly so, Baldwin indicated. He recited sections of the pledge, such as one that calls for committing “to create a school without hate,” and asked why anyone would object.
“We’re trying to be humane, respectful, and encourage good behaviors,” Baldwin said.
He said discussions are underway with the attorney general’s office, the state Education Department, and civil rights groups to develop policies and programs that “are even more powerful” than the online course and pledge.
After the April conference, Healey’s office issued new guidelines for preventing and responding to hate incidents, though the advisory essentially serves as a reminder to school officials of their obligations and legal responsibilities.
Some advocates say the problem demands far greater attention. Mitchell Lyons, founder and retired president of The Social-Emotional Learning Alliance for Massachusetts, a nonprofit focused on promoting positive behavioral health through education, said solving the problem will require a more ambitious commitment to teaching both coaches and students about creating and sustaining safe sports environments.
At Northeastern, the Center for the Study of Sport in Society has for many years trained professional and amateur leagues, colleges, military branches, police departments, and high schools in preventing and responding to abuse and hatred. The center anticipates holding 12 two-day training sessions this fall for high school principals, athletic directors, and coaches across the state.
“We live in complex times, and such times always require the courage of conviction to call out egregious behavior and respond to it,” said Dan Lebowitz, the center’s executive director.
Scott said the troubles of last year have already spurred unprecedented positive communication between the superintendents’ association and the MIAA and has made addressing the crisis a high priority among school officials.
“This is clearly on everybody’s mind right now,’' Scott said. “If supervision isn’t where it needs to be, kids will take advantage. We need to be diligent about it.”
Already this school year, law enforcement authorities beyond Massachusetts have investigated at least five reports of hazing, including one so egregious in Mechanicsville, Pa., that school officials canceled the team’s entire season. Another case, in San Antonio, resulted in the suspensions of 21 players.
Trauma intensified in several Massachusetts communities last year when school and municipal leaders delayed responding to misconduct or withheld details from the public, as if the problem would go away. That just can’t be the way, Baldwin indicated.
“Things are going to happen again, and when something does happen, it needs to be dealt with immediately,” he said. “That’s the greatest lesson everyone can learn.”
Bob Hohler can be reached at email@example.com.