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Report Says Hazing Culture Led to Attacks On 3 Athletes

The New York Times

The sexual assaults that occurred last summer among members of a Long Island high school football team sprang from old traditions of violent hazing that coaches and school officials could not curb, according to a report handed up yesterday by a Pennsylvania grand jury.

Even before three varsity players for the Mepham High School Pirates sodomized three freshman teammates at a football camp, using golf balls, pine cones and a broomstick, other classes of football players had hazed new members by beating them and dunking their heads into toilets, the report said. Once each school year, older Mepham students would beat up younger ones on school grounds in a ritual called ”Freshman Friday,” the grand jury found.

According to the nine-page report, the culture of hazing and a lack of supervision and safeguards to protect students led to the sexual assaults that occurred in August while Mepham’s varsity and junior varsity teams prepared for the season at a camp in Wayne County, Pa.

The grand jury has been investigating the attacks for months to determine whether the coaches should be indicted and what led to the assaults. In an earlier proceeding, the three attackers, charged as juveniles, admitted to the assaults. One was sent to a boot camp, another to a juvenile treatment facility and the third returned home on probation.

As well as rebuking the attackers, the report criticizes the school system and the Pennsylvania judge who handled the cases. The grand jury says the five coaches who supervised the team were ”more concerned with being coaches of a football team than interested in the well-being of the players as students.” But the grand jury did not find the coaches criminally negligent.

And the report provides the most detailed glimpse yet into the weeklong football camp and the assaults that took place in two cabins last summer. The abuse occurred day and night, and young players were attacked repeatedly and forced to sodomize each other, the report says.

”These assaults appear to have grown out of a history of hazing both at the football camp and at Mepham High School itself,” the report says.

The coaches’ lawyer and officials for the Bellmore-Merrick School District did not comment on the report’s findings or its criticisms. In earlier interviews, the head coach, Kevin McElroy, and his four assistants have said they did not know about the attacks, and could have done nothing to prevent them. All five lost their coaching positions.

But for the victims’ families, the report came as a vindication, they said. They have criticized the coaches and school district for lax supervision, accusing Mepham officials of ignoring the long disciplinary record of one of the three attackers.

”There’s no question that they knew hazing had gone on for years, and they allowed it to go on,” said Robert Kelly, a lawyer for two of the victims. ”They continue to try to bury this thing and pretend they did everything they could, and that’s just not true.”

Before the 68 varsity and junior-varsity players left the Long Island communities of Bellmore and Merrick to attend the weeklong camp in Preston Park, Pa., coaches warned the team that hazing would not be tolerated, and spelled out the edict in a note sent home to players’ parents.

”Despite these warnings and policies, the players all expected hazing to take place in one form or another at the camp,” the report said.

During the first day of camp, the hazing was minor, such as one player smearing gel and powder into another’s hair. On the second day, the incidents became brutal. According to the report, two of the attackers held down one of the freshmen while the third sodomized the freshman with a broomstick coated with Mineral Ice, a pain-relieving ointment. Other players laughed, the report said.

Over the next few days, the broomstick assaults were repeated. Duct tape was yanked from the victims’ bottoms and pubic areas, and two of the victims were forced to smear Mineral Ice on their testicles, and then kick each other there, the report says. Coaches, the report says, were oblivious to what was occurring.

The report criticized the Wayne County judge, Robert Conway, for his decision not to move the attackers’ cases from juvenile to adult court. That decision ”let down and insulted the victims and their families,” the report says.

The grand jury criticizes the school district for not providing adequate supervision during the weeklong camp, and says the district should adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward violent behavior. If such a policy had been in place, one of the attackers would not have been allowed at the camp, the report says.

The school also erred by putting the coaches in one cabin and leaving the players in other cabins, supervised only by an older teammate, the report says. Students moved from one cabin to another without the coaches’ knowing, the report says.

According to the report, ”a lack of accountability appears to permeate the entire structure of the administration and running of this camp program.” One of the attackers was allowed to attend camp despite a history of disciplinary problems and not having a permission slip. The coaches let him go, the report says, ”because he was a good football player.”

”This is a wake-up call,” said the father of one of the victims, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his son. ”It’s got to end here.”