Accusations of racist, sexual rituals beset high school hockey program

Register-Herald [Beckley WV]

November 11, 2021

By Jill Harmacinski and Erin Nolan

The Boston lawyer known for representing sex abuse victims Thursday urged the state Attorney General’s Office to investigate accusations of racist and sexual abuse by last year’s Danvers High School varsity hockey team.

Attorney Mitchell Garabedian said news media and other reports make it clear an “institutional coverup” has left the public in the dark about what took place and whether laws were broken.

A former member of the team, who declined to be named, told authorities and news reporters that the team engaged in racist and sexual misconduct in the locker room over the course of the 2019-2020 season.

School officials and the Danvers Police Department conducted investigations months ago. They declined to release unredacted copies of the detailed findings and conclusions last spring, contending privacy laws prevented full disclosure.

Police and the district attorney’s office said the unnamed player whistleblower declined to file a criminal complaint and thus they could not pursue accusations of sexual abuse.

Town and school officials are dealing with a storm of criticism for lack of transparency and for the way they handled the months-old accusations. Some residents have called for the resignation of the school committee and the superintendent. The hockey coach resigned in July. He is also a police sergeant.

Garabedian, who represented victims in the Catholic Church clergy sex abuse scandal, said state authorities need to step up because the “facts raise questions, such as where were the supervisors when these repeated acts took place, and what kind of hiring practices does the town of Danvers have that would create such a negative culture?”

Garabedian said it is impossible for the town to properly investigate itself or hire an attorney or firm to do so on its behalf — something the school committee did when it hired a private detective to examine the accusations.

“The town of Danvers needs to be investigated by an independent agency,” he said. “Not someone they hired.”

The Salem News filed public records requests for the school and police investigative reports earlier this year, but received only heavily redacted copies, with little information. School and police officials said they were restrained by privacy laws.

The former player spoke confidentially to the Salem News because he said he wanted to alert the community. He did not want his named used, fearing retribution from teammates and town hockey fans. He also spoke to school and police investigators.

He said he sensed his accounts of misconduct were not taken seriously. He said he did not file a criminal complaint in order to protect his anonymity and safety.

“Honestly, I think (the administration) is doing nothing,” the player said last summer. “The things they say they are doing, I don’t think they are doing them. They are just trying to say the right things to get the community to calm down, and then have it swept under the rug.”

His story touched on hazing, racist, homophobic and sexual activities by the 2019-2020 varsity hockey team in Danvers, a Boston suburb 16 miles northeast of the city. He said the toxic culture allowed younger players to be bullied and hushed.

That wasn’t the case, he said, when he played on the junior varsity team. But when he moved up to the varsity squad, the behavior of players and coaches made him “uncomfortable.”

He said he was told to strip naked for “Gay Tuesdays,” when older players would turn off the locker room lights and inappropriately touch younger players.

He also said he was beaten with a sex toy for refusing to shout a racial slur on “Hard-R Fridays.” named for the final ‘r in the n-word. Players would line up in front of their hockey bags and scream racial slurs, one by one, he said.

“There was a team dildo … the Pink Dragon,” he said, for use on those that refused to join in the ritual.

“I didn’t want to say the n-word with a hard r, so I got pinned down by two kids and beaten with a dildo until, well they beat you until there was a red mark on your face from the dildo,” he said. “I felt it was a thing that shouldn’t happen.”

While it was an awful experience, he added, it was even worse to see others go through it.

“Remember these are 18-year-olds, and the kids they are usually going after are 14,” he said. “These are 18-year-old athletes who have been training in the gym for the past four years with the team, so they’ll just pin down 14-year-olds and beat them. I felt more bad for those kids than myself.”

He said he believes Hard-R Fridays came about from a toxic culture where racist players wanted teammates to be like them.

“I remember a lot of the time, people would kind of say to each other, ‘Why are we doing this?’ And then other people would be like, ‘I don’t know,’ and we’d still do it.”

He said on “Gay Tuesdays,” players were expected to strip naked, with force used on those who resisted. Then, he added, the leaders “would expect everyone to touch each other. The touched were expected to guess who was doing the fondling.”

Once he said an assistant coach entered the dark locker room, turned on the lights and noticed players naked in a circle. He said players informed the coach it was “Gay Tuesday,” causing him to turn off the lights and leave, remarking, “I don’t want to hear about it.”

The player said the origins of the ritual were unclear.

“It doesn’t really make sense, especially because they (the players) are all extremely homophobic,” he said. “So it doesn’t really register with me why they would think it was funny if they are actively doing something that they specifically say they don’t like.”

In the summer of 2020, the former player said, he captured screen shots of texts and photos from the hockey team’s group chat that included about half of the players. He said they revealed homophobic, racist, ableist and antisemitic conversations, some of which targeted current and former members of the Danvers High School community.

The former player said he sent some of the screen shots to a friend and eventually they showed up on social media.

“Everything resurfaced in June with the screen shots,” he said. “When those got out into the public, there was some more common knowledge about what was going on.”

The player said Danvers Police Capt. James Lovell interviewed him about his accusations of racial and sexual misconduct.

“They sent him to my house, and he just wanted to see if I wanted to press charges,” he said. “I was like, ‘Against who? Everyone?’ That is not really what I am wanting to do right now. It’s not about saying this specific person touched me, that wasn’t the whole idea. It’s not about what happened to me, it’s about the culture and the kids who come after me.”

He said he did not agree with Lovell’s eventual finding that “some immature behavior occurred inside of the Danvers High School varsity hockey team’s locker room but it does not appear that anyone was forced to participate. I do not have any reason to believe any criminal behavior occurred at this time.”

Reflecting on that statement, the former hockey player said, “Of course they are going to say (there was no crime), but what does that even mean? Eighteen-year-olds were touching 14-year-olds. That is criminal.”