A Rite Gone Terribly Wrong Hazing is often winked at as a benign initiation ritual, but it has a tendency to spiral out of control, as it did in the horrific events at Long Island's Mepham High

Sports Illustrated

Hard by A lake in rural northeastern Pennsylvania lies a wooded enclave known as Camp Wayne for Girls. But last August, in the dog days before the beginning of a new school year, the grounds were brimming with testosterone. Sixty boys and five coaches from Long Island's Mepham High football team had converged on the property for the Pirates' annual preseason camp. They spent most of their time on a practice field across from a ring of green cabins, running through plays, determining who would be where on the 2003 depth chart.

The members of the jayvee team--freshmen and a few sophomores--expected to be the subject of hazing. It had all but ossified into a Mepham football tradition: The upperclassmen would initiate the new kids. One young player might suffer the indignity of a shaved head, another a conspicuous bruise, maybe an unlucky one would have body hair ripped off with duct tape. It was understood that they would endure their humiliation without complaint, and by the time they returned home to Bellmore, a middle-class town of 16,000 in the heart of New York City's sprawling suburbia, they would have standing as official members of the team. And besides, they could take some comfort in knowing that someday they would be the ones leading the initiation.

According to accounts provided by numerous sources with access to firsthand testimony and to court documents made available to SI, a senior tackle and a junior linebacker (whose names are being withheld because they are minors) inaugurated their reign of terror in cabin 13 during free time between practice sessions on the afternoon of Aug. 23. As a third teammate helped out, the 6'2", 245-pound senior grabbed a jayvee player whom he outweighed by nearly 100 pounds and sat on him. The hulking junior linebacker then pulled down the player's shorts, dipped a broomstick in Mineral Ice--an ointment that burns when applied to sensitive skin--and forcibly sodomized him.

Other team members in the cabin cheered or looked on in horror (or both), but no one broke the unwritten code by alerting coach Kevin McElroy or any of his four assistants. In the days and nights that followed, as their rampage went unchecked, the senior and his junior cohort--the latter of whom would tell a psychiatrist that he, too, had been hazed as a freshman--sodomized two other jayvee players as well, adding pine cones and golf balls as instruments in their repertoire of brutality.

In the end, there were as many as 10 attacks on the three victims--one vicious enough to cause a witness to vomit--in cabins 12 and 13. On two occasions the perpetrators forced a jayvee player to sodomize another with the broomstick. On another they made a victim suck on a golf ball that had been placed in his teammate's rectum. At one point the junior linebacker placed a banana near his crotch and forced one of the players to simulate oral sex on the banana. Another jayvee player was then made to eat the banana. On the third night of camp, two of the underclassmen were given a choice: They could be sodomized or they could approach an African-American teammate and berate him with a series of racial epithets scripted by the upperclassmen. They chose option B.

It wasn't until the four-hour bus ride home on Aug. 27 that whispers about the horror began to amplify. As the bus barreled down the highway, a freshman who had slept in cabin 10 sidled up to one of the victims and asked if there was any truth to the rumors. "Nah, don't worry about it," came a sheepish response. When the team arrived back in Bellmore, no witnesses reported what they had seen. Ashamed, embarrassed and threatened with additional violence, none of the victims came forward either.

Last September, three weeks after the Mepham attacks, New York Yankees rookies Hideki Matsui and Jose Contreras emerged from their clubhouse in the Bronx to howls of laughter. In a scene designed for maximum comedic effect, the Yankees' veterans forced the rookies to parade in flamboyant women's clothing--a leopard-print hat and coat for Matsui, a white fur coat and purple pants for Contreras--in front of eager media from around the world. Everyone got a good chuckle, to say nothing of a picture and lighthearted write-up for the next day's papers. For the Yankees and a host of other clubs, it's an annual rite of passage, a way of humbling the millionaire newbies and initiating them.

It's something else, too: hazing.

The practice is firmly entrenched in an American sports culture that values tradition, team bonding, leadership hierarchies and assertiveness. But what is hazing? As Hank Nuwer, an assistant professor at Franklin College in Indiana who has written four books on hazing, acknowledges, the term has a maddeningly broad definition: Any activity expected of someone joining a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses or endangers, regardless of the person's willingness to participate. "It's almost like we need different terms, like we have with manslaughter [and murder]," Nuwer says. "Having someone put on silly clothes is called hazing, and so is sodomy."

What starts out benign, Nuwer argues, can turn ugly in a heartbeat. "It can escalate in a single year with a single suggestion," he says. "The experts say, 'Look at the culture. Once you have a hazing culture and some sort of risky behavior, the chances are somebody's going to escalate it and something's going to go wrong.' It would be really rare that the very first time we do hazing we have something bad occur. It's usually a pattern over some years."

When that pattern crosses the line, the effects can be devastating. At the New Orleans Saints' 1998 training camp, two dozen veterans escalated the usual hazing--in which rookies were forced to sing college fight songs and get their heads shaved--by herding five players, their heads covered with pillowcases, through a gantlet of punches, pushes and wallops with coin-filled bags. (Three rookies required medical treatment, including defensive tackle Jeff Danish, who needed 13 stitches in his left arm after crashing through a window; cut from the team a short time later, Danish filed a lawsuit and reached an undisclosed settlement with the Saints in '99.)

During the 1999-2000 season, the University of Vermont was rocked by a hazing scandal in which a group of hockey players forced eight freshmen and a walk-on goalie to take part in an "elephant walk," parading around naked while holding each other's genitals; to perform naked push-ups as their genitals dipped into beer, the number of push-ups determining whether they would have to drink from their own glass or someone else's; and to complete a "pie-eating contest," gorging on seafood quiche covered with ketchup and barbecue sauce until they vomited in a bucket. The university canceled the remainder of the season after it found that the perpetrators had tried to impede its investigation.

How widespread is hazing? According to a 1999 study conducted by Alfred (N.Y.) University, 80% of the NCAA athletes it surveyed said they had been subjected to some form of hazing at the college level. Alarmingly, 42% of that group reported they had also been hazed in high school. Most incidents go unreported, owing to victims' fears of retribution and isolation for "ratting out" their teammates, but some cases do become public. Last May an annual powder-puff football tradition between junior and senior girls from Glenbrook North High in suburban Chicago made national news when a videotape surfaced of the seniors punching, kicking and smearing a concoction of house paint, fish guts and human feces on the juniors, sending five of them to the hospital.

High school provides a set of circumstances in which hazing can be especially pernicious. For one, the hazers are almost always juveniles, whose lack of maturity can easily lead to the escalation of hazing rites. What's more, the fallout from hazing can spread like a virus through the community. "If anything is typical, it's how it divides the community," says Nuwer. "Hazing isn't the worst problem in the world till it happens to you. Then it's the worst problem you've ever had."

IT TOOK MORE than a week, but eventually the Mepham victims could no longer conceal the injuries they had suffered at the football camp. One player accompanied his parents to Manhattan on Aug. 30 and was in so much pain that he couldn't sit down. The following day he went to a Long Island hospital, where doctors performed a surgical procedure to relieve his discomfort. How, the doctors asked, had he come to suffer this unusual wound? The victim responded evasively that it was "a weightlifting injury."

On Sept. 3, a full week after the team had returned to Bellmore, another victim was also in immense pain, unable to stanch the rectal bleeding that for days had soiled his sheets and underwear. Humiliated and frightened, he asked his mother to take him to the doctor. When his pediatrician asked about the source of the injury, the victim finally relented, revealing some of the details of the hellish five days he had spent at camp.

After collecting herself, the victim's mother frantically called Mepham principal John Didden and later brought her son in to meet with him. According to the victim's attorney, Robert Kelly, Didden was dispassionate and advised the mother to call the police herself. "From Day One," Kelly says, "the school tried to bury this." (Didden's attorney, Christopher Clayton, confirms that the principal advised the boy's mother to call the police, but he denies the other allegations.) When the mother called the police in Wayne County, Pa., the site of the attacks, she was asked to leave a message and was told that someone would get back to her. Exasperated and desperate, she placed a call to the special victims unit in the Nassau County police department, which serves Bellmore. Wayne Birdsall, a veteran member of the unit, consulted with his Wayne County colleagues and interviewed the victims soon afterward.

A 68-year-old public high school named for its first district superintendent, W.C. Mepham High is tucked into a residential area of Bellmore. The school routinely sends graduates to top colleges, mints National Merit Scholars and was ranked No. 123 in a 2002 Newsweek story rating the nation's top high schools. As it does in any school, gossip travels the halls at warp speed, and within days the corridors were buzzing with rumors of the horror at Camp Wayne. Less than a week into the school year, the three victims' identities were common knowledge. The cruel taunts and nicknames--football fag, broomstick boy, butt pirate--came shortly thereafter.

The identities of the perpetrators were no secret, either. And yet the two ringleaders cut confident figures as they roamed the halls, eagerly anticipating the Pirates' first game on Sept. 20. "It was totally backward," says Michael Rubin, an attorney for two of the victims. "These guys--not my clients--should have been the ones to be ostracized, but they were treated like kings of the school." One of the victims was so upset that he stopped attending Mepham and began homeschooling.

The two lead attackers were both starters with close-cropped hair and ripped physiques. Otherwise, they form a study in contrasts. The product of a broken home, the 16-year-old junior linebacker is by most accounts a classic bully, a kid who thought nothing of slamming classmates into locker banks for kicks. Sources confirm that he had a history of disciplinary infractions and suspensions.

The 17-year-old senior tackle, on the other hand, hails from a family that was well-regarded in the community. A Boy Scout who had attained the Life rank, he had his sights set on taking the next step to Eagle with the support of his parents, who were active in his troop. Arguably Mepham's best player, he stood a good chance of landing a college football scholarship, and it surprised no one that the coaches designated him "bunk leader" for his cabin at camp. "He's the last guy you'd think would be involved in something like this," says a rival player from Calhoun High who has known the attacker since they were Pop Warner teammates a decade ago.

As the hazing inquiry intensified and the severity of the acts became more apparent, investigators from the criminal justice system and the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District confronted an impenetrable wall of silence. The victims had spoken, albeit reluctantly, but no other players were willing to provide firsthand accounts. Nuwer says this is typical behavior: "Until you get to be about 25 years old, loyalty to the group is more important than moral qualms. We're more likely to agree as a group that we should turn on this victim than we are to confront one another."

Administrators seeking answers grew increasingly frustrated. At an emergency meeting on Sept. 16, Thomas Caramore, the district superintendent, addressed the parents of the Mepham football players. Citing the moral obligation of witnesses to report what they had seen, he told the parents that the investigation had stalled and urged them to have their sons come forward. Nobody did. The following day the school board voted unanimously to cancel Mepham's football season.

Even at the high school level, football is serious business in most communities--and the decision to forfeit the season had a direct impact on hundreds of people while giving rise to a new group of victims. What had happened at Camp Wayne was abhorrent, everyone agreed. But was canceling the season fair to the upperclassmen who hoped to earn football scholarships and now wouldn't be able to showcase their talents? What about the cheerleaders and band members who would also be deprived? What about the Homecoming dance and pep rallies, revered traditions that would now be canceled? With all those factors swirling in the air, angry football players walked out of classes in protest on Sept. 18, the same day that the three attackers were suspended from school.

Then, on Oct. 2, Wayne County district attorney Mark Zimmer announced that he would charge the three alleged attackers with an assortment of crimes, the most serious of them involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, a first-degree felony. When Zimmer announced four days later that he would seek to charge them as adults, the development was overshadowed by another piece of Mepham-related news: The 40-year-old father of the junior attacker had died suddenly at his home. (The cause of death has not been made public.) The boy's attorney, Mark Alter, speculated at the time that the death had resulted from "the stress of the case."

By then the hazing story had been swept into the insatiable maw of the media, and an army of satellite trucks and notepad-wielding reporters had become fixtures on school grounds. As the words Mepham and Bellmore became inextricably tied to hazing and sodomy, the case morphed into a public referendum on the entire community. Almost overnight, one of the nation's most accomplished high schools was redefined by the horrific acts of three students. "There's shame," says Arnold Goldstein, an assistant superintendent for the district. "There are three kids who did this, and there were kids who were witnesses. And it was terrible. But there are 1,300 kids in this school, and a lot of them have to assume the guilt because people make horrible comments to them when they find out they're from Mepham. And they didn't do anything wrong."

Although there was sympathy for the victims of the attacks, the redirection of public support toward the community and the school--and, in some precincts, the principal, the coaches and the football team--inevitably shifted the focus of the story. Parents and alumni distributed thousands of maroon-and-gray buttons reading MEPHAM PRIDE IS ALIVE. Football team partisans put up homemade leaflets on light posts, proclaiming support THE VARSITY VICTIMS.

Treating the media as the common enemy, the town closed ranks. In late November an SI reporter was ordered to leave the property at Luigi's Pizza, a Mepham High hangout, within seconds of approaching a student. "I don't want you talking to them," a store employee said. "When they're here, they're my kids."

With increasing regularity, public statements adopted the construction, I'm sorry about the victims, but ... or stopped referring to the rape victims altogether. And in a scenario that was eerily similar to the aftermath of the attacks themselves, those who violated the community's wall of silence faced their own chilling threats of retaliation.

Consider the stories of Jim Rullo and Victor Reichstein. On Oct. 1 the mother of one victim asked Rullo, a family friend, to read a statement at that night's school-board meeting. In an emotional showdown between supporters and critics of principal Didden and the coaches, Rullo stood before a packed 700-seat auditorium and quoted both the mother ("My son is just as upset with the coaches as with the perpetrators") and her son ("I kept thinking they were coming to help me, but they never came"). For his part Reichstein, the father of a jayvee football player who is a friend of two of the victims, called for Didden and the five coaches to be fired. "There are lots of splinter groups out there right now," said Reichstein, who had told Didden of a threatening run-in his son had had with the bullying junior attacker before the Pennsylvania trip. "It's not about football at this point. It's about doing the right thing."

Over the next week both Rullo and Reichstein received anonymous letters in the mail, warning that they, too, would be sodomized with broomsticks if they didn't adopt a posture of silence. "It's simple," Rullo's letter read. "Keep your mouth shut and nothing will happen to you or your family." Undaunted, they spoke out at additional meetings and continued to field calls from the media. In two follow-up letters to Rullo and Reichstein, the anonymous warnings escalated to death threats. And on Halloween vandals pelted Reichstein's house with eggs, doing $500 worth of damage.

"Reichstein and I are keeping the spotlight on this case because it's unbelievable how our people are responding," Rullo said in early November. "You think you all have the same values, but at the November board meeting two thirds of the building was there to support the coaches. They were flanked by the team, and behind them faculty members, alumni and former football players." Added Reichstein, "We never thought sports would be like this."

Though Rullo and Reichstein have been the most public faces in the debate, they aren't alone. Last month six other families joined the Reichsteins in forming the Bellmore-Merrick Parents for Change, a group which now comprises 100 families, who are calling for an independent state investigation into the school district's handling of the case.

Regarded by some in Bellmore as grandstanding media hounds, Rullo and Reichstein are viewed as heroes in other quarters. Last month Rullo was honored for his courage by a local synagogue (even though he's a Catholic). Likewise, Reichstein was stunned to get a call of support from a childhood friend and another from troops at an Army base in Germany. Even their detractors would have a hard time denying the two men have had an impact. At a contentious meeting, on Nov. 5, the board announced its intention not to reappoint the football coaches next year, though two will remain as tenured teachers.

There's an abiding irony to it all: A series of vicious acts, intended to be shrouded in secrecy, suddenly became international news, the prevailing code of silence an invitation for all manner of fringe groups in our postmodern American circus to provide their own interpretation of the narrative. That became absurdly evident in October when eight members of a fanatical antigay sect from Topeka, Kans., held a demonstration at Mepham because they had somehow concluded that the attacks were provoked by the community's permissive attitude toward homosexuality.

They were met by some 400 counterprotesters in a scene that caused everyone involved to wonder how events had spiraled so far out of control. Before long, real estate agents were voicing concerns about the possible decline of property values. If you were one of the Mepham students hanging out in the parking lot of the local Stop & Shop on a gray Tuesday afternoon last month, the whole thing made your head spin. "Just wearing your school sweatshirt to parties with other schools, you see everybody whispering," one freshman boy explained.

"You can't get away from it," said another, shaking his head. Had he learned anything from the saga? "Yeah," he replied. "You learn what three kids can do to a whole community."

For all the polarization and finger-pointing in Bellmore, every group wrestled with the same fundamental question: How had this happened? While everyone agreed that the per-petrators bore responsibility for their actions, what other factors had made it possible for this horror to visit the community? "People want to believe it could have been prevented," says Goldstein, the assistant district superintendent. "They want an answer. They want to know who's to blame. That's a natural thing."

Could it have been prevented? And who was to blame? There was no shortage of candidates:

--The coaches Square-jawed and solemn, Kevin McElroy was supposed to have started his 18th season as the Pirates' coach last fall. While some of his teams had been outstanding and others mediocre--the 2002 squad had a 4-4 record--McElroy inspired reverence and loyalty among a legion of former players that includes Pittsburgh Steelers running back Amos Zereoue (class of '95), the program's most distinguished alum.

But McElroy's critics say the coach has always protected his star players and didn't go far enough when dealing with their objectionable conduct. To wit: At an optional conditioning session last summer, the junior attacker allegedly directed a series of epithets at a group of jayvee players that included Reichstein's freshman son. The elder Reichstein says he complained to McElroy, telling the coach, "My son doesn't need to be called a c--------- or a faggot, and I want it stopped." Reichstein says that McElroy vowed to speak to the linebacker and apparently did, because afterward the upperclassman had a new nickname for his son: Tattletale Boy.

Three days before the preseason camp the bully cut in front of Reichstein's son at the practice field's drinking fountain. When the freshman objected, his nemesis allegedly warned him, "Don't even think about sleeping at camp." This time Reichstein alerted principal Didden and pressured him to ban the junior linebacker from the trip, explaining that he had already complained about his behavior to the coach. Reichstein's wife also spoke to the principal. They say Didden refused to ban him, responding, "I am the principal. I decide who goes and who doesn't go on this trip." (Didden's attorney says the principal made his decision only after investigating the incident and concluding that Reichstein's son pushed the junior linebacker first.) The family further alleges that when their son, who was not one of the attack victims, got off the bus at Camp Wayne, McElroy assigned him to cabin 10, away from the bully's cabin, and added, "We'll make it easy for you." Victor Reichstein considers the remark a smoking gun: "He knew there was hazing. Maybe not to [the extent of sodomy], but these kids knew they could get away with hazing." (McElroy's attorney, Joseph S. Rosenthal, denies that McElroy made the remark and says the boys' conflict had nothing to do with hazing.)

The investigation of the camp attacks has brought out evidence of at least three other hazing victims--the attackers themselves. Sources tell SI that at a November hearing to determine whether the alleged Camp Wayne perpetrators should be tried as juveniles, Long Island psychiatrist William Kaplan, testifying on behalf of the junior linebacker, told the judge that the attacker himself had been hazed as a freshman player at Mepham, though not to the degree that took place in this case. (The attorneys for the senior tackle and the third accomplice say their clients were hazed as well.) Zereoue, too, confirmed to SI that in his day players would "tape guys up, things like that."

Moreover, a former Mepham player named Wesley Berger says that when he was a freshman in 1995, some upperclassmen initiated the newbies by dunking their heads in a toilet and then flushing it. Other freshmen, he recalls, had been given the same treatment--so-called "swirlies"--but when it was Berger's turn, he saw that the toilet was filled with urine and fought back. After he informed the coach, he paid for his resistance. The next week Berger was beaten by at least a half-dozen older players, suffering cuts, a concussion and a cracked tooth. He filed a lawsuit against the school district and received a small settlement. "Basically," says Berger, now 23, "I broke the code of silence, and so I got the s--- kicked out of me." (District officials concede that Berger was assaulted by teammates but claim it was an isolated act, not indicative of a pattern of hazing.)

Though McElroy and the four Mepham assistant coaches declined to comment for this story, their attorney, Rosenthal, denies that the coaches knew of previous hazing at Mepham, maintains they did nothing wrong in Pennsylvania and says they didn't learn of the attacks until five days after the team had returned from camp. According to Rosenthal, the players were supervised during scrimmages and workouts and had to be in bed by 10 p.m., with three nightly bed checks thereafter between 11 p.m. and midnight. "Believe me," jayvee coach Art Canestro, a 1985 Mepham grad, told Newsday, "if I had any indication something was wrong, I would have been all over it."

Even after the school board announced on Nov. 5 that it would not reappoint the coaches for the '04 season, the Mepham faculty was vocal in its support of them. According to Newsday, biology teacher Nicole Hollings read a statement on behalf of a group of faculty members at that meeting, recommending that the coaches be retained. "Something like this could have happened under the supervision of any teacher, any club adviser, any supervisor, any coach, any administrator in any school in any community in any state across our country," she said, inciting outbursts of both support and derision from the audience.

The board members, however, had made up their minds. "What parent is going to feel comfortable sending their youngster out to play ball when these were the people in charge?" says board member Louis Kruh. "It's just common sense. It was their watch, they should have watched out."

--The school or the district Should the same argument also apply to principal Didden, even though he wasn't on the ground in Pennsylvania? Should he have prevented the junior attacker from traveling to the camp after being tipped off about his bullying beforehand? The Reichsteins say yes. When news of the attacks got out, Victor Reichstein says, "The first thing my wife and I said was, 'We warned them.'"

Didden and superintendent Caramore declined SI's interview requests, but assistant superintendent Goldstein staunchly defends Didden's reaction to the water-fountain incident. "Of all the accusations, that one has been the most destructive, that somehow we knew and looked the other way," he says. "There was no way on God's earth to look at that and say, 'You know what, that kid might go sodomize some younger kids in camp.'"

District officials point out that Didden received a public letter of support--signed by the principals of every Nassau County public high school--affirming that they would have responded the same way under the circumstances. The Bellmore-Merrick school board appears to agree. Unlike the coaches, Didden continues to receive the board's full backing and remains in his position as principal.

Lawyers for the victims have already announced their intentions to file what could be multimillion-dollar civil suits against the school district, the principal, the coaches and the attackers, though they don't rule out adding other defendants later. (A grand jury in Wayne County is still investigating whether or not to charge others in the camp attacks.) But hazing law can be tricky, and a big judgment is by no means guaranteed.

For starters, the district says the players and their parents all signed letters before the Pennsylvania trip that stated hazing would not be tolerated and any offenders would be sent home. "We had in place probably the same procedures as any other district had," Goldstein says. "I look at it sort of like 9/11. Before 9/11 there were security procedures, but no one thought someone would take a plane and fly it into a building. It was just out of the realm of possibility."

Also, while it may appear that a pattern of hazing existed at Mepham, administrators say they were unaware of it. "I've been here eight years, and I have not received one complaint about hazing," says Bellmore-Merrick athletic director Saul Lerner. "And this is not a community that's shy about contacting me."

Now the district administrators find themselves in a tight spot, saying, in effect, We'll do more to prevent future attacks, but we shouldn't be liable for having failed to prevent this one. Accepting responsibility for the crimes could cost the district millions, but officials will gladly discuss the issue in the future tense and have undertaken several new initiatives, including a mandatory freshman seminar. "The educational theme is about courage, because that's really what was lacking," says Goldstein. "I understand why kids were reluctant to come forward. Most adults don't act courageously. So we're focusing on, 'What does it take to be a courageous person?'"

--The camps Some critics say it's no coincidence the attacks happened while the team was at an overnight camp. From Colorado to Rhode Island--in sports ranging from NFL football to high school cheerleading--athletic hazing incidents resulting in suspensions and criminal charges have occurred at preseason retreats.

Consider the circumstances: The athletes have been transported from their homes to a secluded outpost; coaches constantly stress the sanctity of team unity; and supervision is often lax. At Camp Wayne, the coach-player ratio was 1 to 12, the coaches slept in a separate cabin, and according to one victim's lawyer, they routinely conducted only one bed check after 10 p.m. "You get a Lord of the Flies mentality," says Douglas Fierberg, a Washington, D.C., attorney specializing in hazing law. "The environment is about bonding and power, and it's easy for things to get out of control."

--Contemporary American culture Nuwer argues that recent trends in entertainment--e.g., reality television--have had a dramatic impact on the social mores that influence hazing. "The media standards have changed in terms of embarrassing somebody," he says. "We humiliate. We vote people off. Kids are very aware that you laugh at these things."

Even forcible sodomy is a regular part of the public discussion. It wasn't lost on anyone in Bellmore that the Mepham attacks bore an unmistakable resemblance to the heavily publicized sodomy (with a wooden plunger handle) by a New York City police officer of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, in 1997. Nor was Mepham the first example of such brutality in the realm of athletic hazing. In his research Nuwer has counted 11 cases of high school hazing since '83 involving sodomy--but these, he stresses, are just the ones that the media have reported.

Why do assailants sodomize their victims? And what kind of message does it send? "When you see this kind of behavior in prison, it's not just about sex. It's about power," says Daniel Jay Sonkin, Ph.D., a Sausalito, Calif., therapist who specializes in dealing with violent men and women. "Those boys may have felt like they needed to humiliate their victims, and they chose the most extreme method to do it. The purpose is to create submission, so they'll live in such fear that they'll do whatever the leaders want."

Of course, citing the influences of modern culture does little to assuage the anger of a Mepham parent or community member still waiting for someone in power to accept responsibility. Goldstein says that while he understands that desire for accountability, the reality is far more complicated. "People are looking for one truth, but there isn't an absolute truth," he says. "It's like the movie Rashomon, where everyone looks at things differently. There are multiple truths in a situation like this."

NEARLY THREE MONTHS to the day after the first round of assaults, the central fig-ures in the Mepham sexual-assault case were reunited on Nov. 21 in rural Pennsylvania. In a small, dimly lit room on the fourth floor of the Wayne County Court-house, both ringleaders admitted to their roles in the sodomies, turned to face their victims and apologized, according to witnesses who were present at the two boys' closed hearings, which were held separately. The plaintiffs and their families stared back at the attackers and remained quiet throughout the hourlong process, their churning emotions betrayed only by the tears that welled in their eyes.

Once Wayne County judge Robert J. Conway had ruled on Nov. 12 that the perpetrators would be treated as juveniles rather than as adults--a decision that, while consistent with state law, infuriated the victims' families and large segments of the Bellmore community--the judicial endgame had begun. That same day, sources say, the third accomplice (who was 15 at the time of the attacks but has since turned 16), admitted to one count of aggravated assault as part of a plea deal in which he agreed to testify against the other two. Now the ringleaders had also pleaded guilty as juveniles, one admitting to six counts, and the other to three, of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, the most serious charge they faced.

The attackers' apologies provided, at long last, a fleeting glimpse into the psyches of the assailants. The would-be Eagle Scout (who has since had his membership revoked) said he was sorry, but his face remained a stoic mask, and his words rang hollow to the victims' families. By contrast, his accomplice--the classic bully--broke down and cried while saying he was sorry for what he had done to the jayvee players. "I know it sounds silly," says Kelly, the attorney for two of the victims, "but [his apology] meant something to the families."

Afterward, the two attackers were led outside in handcuffs and were taken to separate undisclosed Pennsylvania facilities. (The third attacker is at home under strict supervision.) They will continue to be evaluated until at least Jan. 5 to help determine the course of their rehabilitation. The victims and the perpetrators will then present testimony and/or sworn statements detailing how the crime has affected their lives at a disposition hearing before Judge Conway, who will choose from one of three options: probation, placement in a wilderness boot camp or residency in a treatment center until no later than age 21. Because they are being treated as juveniles, the perpetrators' offenses will not appear on their adult criminal records.

The victims, of course, received a far harsher sentence, one that has no specific release date, no provision to wipe clean their record of those harrowing five days and their aftermath. Even now the three young teenage boys endure a seemingly ceaseless wave of humiliation on top of the one they absorbed at Camp Wayne. The victim who had begun homeschooling returned to class after his tormentors were suspended, but his father says he may yet send him to another school come January. Another victim, fed up with the "broomstick boy" catcalls of a classmate, was involved in an off-campus fight that was broken up by police. Seeking a fresh start, one of the victims transferred to nearby Calhoun High, only to return to Mepham after learning his identity was known at Calhoun, too. As recently as last week, one victim had to undergo a surgical procedure for an injury suffered during the August attacks. All three victims are currently in therapy. "[My son] is confused about a lot of things, especially authority," says one victim's father, noting that the preseason camp was his son's first trip away from home. "He doesn't have any trust for anybody."

When the victims left the courthouse in Pennsylvania last month, a phalanx of police officers shielded them from public view with a tarp. One could make out only the shadows of slouching physiques and six small shoes poking out from the bottom of the canvas. There was no Mepham Pride to be seen here.

Yet in a tragedy defined by cowardly acts--by bullies torturing small kids, by witnesses failing to stop or report the violence, by authority figures shirking responsibility--the three victims soldier on, drawing support from family and friends, sucking in a deep breath each morning as they walk through the doors of Mepham High. The families have no delusions about why that courage is required, for they know the demons that will haunt their boys in the years and decades to come. What began as a sports initiation rite, a horribly twisted "bonding experience," has devastated three young lives. "My son went to that camp in one piece," says one victim's father, "and he came back in a million."