DANVERS – Amid allegations of racist and homophobic locker room hazing by members of the Danvers High School boys hockey team outlined by a player to the Boston Globe, a joke in a group chat by members of the squad about how Jews were killed in the Holocaust stands out.
Antisemitism had been mentioned by the School Committee as part of its investigation into homophobic, racist, sexist and hateful language and actions alleged to have been committed by some members of the 2019-2020 varsity hockey team.
But this was the first time a description of what the antisemitism looked like was made public.
Investigations into the team’s conduct were sparked by complaints that some players unfurled a Trump 2020 flag at the head of a senior car parade on June 11, 2020, according to reports provided by the superintendent. These reports, however, are heavily redacted due to privacy concerns with details, including any mention of the antisemitic joke in a chat, blacked out.
According to The Salem News, the school’s former five-year hockey coach, a well-known Danvers police sergeant and the head of the department’s juvenile division/community policing, Steve Baldassare, resigned his coaching job, after temporarily being placed on leave in January and then reinstated during the 2020-2021 season. No reason was given for his resignation.
Amid an uproar about a lack of transparency, Superintendent Lisa Dana faced a motion to have her put on leave. In a closed-door meeting Nov. 15, no action was taken on her job status, according to a statement, which restated the dilemma the schools faced for more transparency amid the legal obligation to protect the privacy of students and staff. As such, school officials said they could not say what disciplinary action was taken, but they said they took “prompt action.” The district applauded the hockey player who came forward “to shine a light on what is alleged to have occurred and hope he knows that that his actions will lead to change.” School officials also admitted “that our communication to the public … fell short.”
“We must redouble our efforts to do all that we can from an educational standpoint to establish a culture where our students and our staff know that acts of racism, homophobia, antisemitism, bullying or [other] conduct … simply has no place in our schools,” read the statement.
Amid fallout from the Globe’s story, Danvers officials found themselves dealing with yet another incident last week, one involving hate graffiti including two swastikas found in a third-floor student bathroom at the Holten Richmond Middle School.
Principal Brendan Norton said in an email to the school community: “We condemn this hate crime and want to be clear that this type of hateful and discriminatory behavior has no place at Holten Richmond Middle School.”
Danvers police Chief James Lovell said in an email that the school resource officer and the school’s administration were working to identify the student responsible.
A town statement condemning the graffiti said: “This most recent incident fits into a broader pattern” and mentioned several other incidents, including “an investigation into racist and homophobic behavior last year by student athletes … and a swastika discovered in the woods behind the middle school.”
Lovell said the earlier antisemitic incident was reported to police on April 14 when a middle school class found a swastika painted on a tree in some woods behind the baseball field at the school. It appeared the swastika had been there for some time. The town’s forestry department covered it over, but a suspect was never identified, Lovell said.
A town-wide vigil in response to these incidents is planned at the gazebo at the library, 15 Sylvan St., on Saturday, Nov. 20, at 4:30 p.m.
What went on at the high school has troubled some in the town’s Jewish community.
“I was very disturbed,” said Myrna Fearer, a long-time Danvers reporter and columnist who is also a columnist for the Jewish Journal. Fearer, who is Jewish and has lived in town since 1961, said she has always been proud of Danvers. “I have people calling me asking, ‘What happened to Danvers?’”
“I think it’s really tragic,” said University of Massachusetts Amherst senior Mae-Lou Zaleski, who graduated from Danvers High in 2018. “It’s disturbing. What is not disturbing is I’m not really surprised.”
Zaleski, who was born in Hunan, China, adopted as a baby and raised in a Jewish household, said reports of the locker room misconduct validated her experience in what she saw was a “privileged white school” in which there were no repercussions for hate speech or actions. She was not surprised the conduct was kept secret by school officials.
Because she is Asian, she said she does not fit the stereotype of a Jewish person. She had heard about a few antisemitic incidents over the years. She recalled a cutting comment that had been made behind her back about her that “What is worse is that she is Jewish.”
“We were excluded from a lot of discourse,” said Zaleski, who was one of five students of color in her class. She has empathy for students who have been impacted. “To have your consent violated like that must have been difficult.”
Danvers State Representative Sally Kerans took to Facebook to say: “The vile, racist, homophobic and antisemitic behaviors in the Danvers High School hockey team locker room as detailed in today’s Globe are profoundly disturbing.”
“This town has many more thousands of people who abhor antisemitism, racism and homophobia than not,” Kerans said in an email. “We have to make ourselves heard so that kids, especially, know that.”
Much of the backlash against the school administration and the School Committee has been over a lack of transparency and accountability. Many of the more serious blacked-out allegations outlined to the Globe by the player about locker room rituals – players forced to shout the n-word on “Hard R Fridays” or to strip naked on “Gay Tuesdays” plus the offensive language in the team chat – were kept secret from the public for months in the redacted investigation reports.
Eric Crane, chairman of the Danvers School Committee, defended the decision to hold back details from the public. “Any decisions that were made were made with the best interests of the students in mind,” Crane said in an interview.
Crane said the school board was not trying to sweep things under the rug, and that past presentations described the team’s conduct as homophobic, racist and antisemitic. He said the school’s investigator found the player who came forward credible.
But he said the board was guided by its counsel when it came to describing the conduct. There were concerns about how these details might impact teenage students who may have been involved but who were still attending the high school.
As for the extent of the antisemitic conduct, Crane said he saw one Holocaust joke among images of a group chat. “That is the only one I can remember,” he said. The chat leaned more toward other forms of offensive speech and images, Crane said.
“The issue is, these students spoke inappropriately, acted inappropriately … it was all of the things it should not have been … all of it was bad, all of it was abhorrent, all of it shouldn’t have happened,” Crane said.
Crane said some local organizations are providing help, resources and training. The schools have been in touch with the Anti-Defamation League and the Salem-based Lappin Foundation.
“I met with principals of Danvers High School and Middle School earlier this week to talk about the Holocaust symposium for their students,” said Deborah Coltin, the executive director of the Lappin Foundation, in an email.
Lappin ran a successful Holocaust Symposium for Teens in Duxbury this past summer after it was found that members of the Duxbury High football team used the term “Auschwitz” and other Jewish terms to call plays at the line of scrimmage during a game on March 12.
In an email, the Danvers superintendent provided information regarding the school’s response to the swastika incidents, including that Holocaust education is taught at Danvers High in grade 9. A unit on the Holocaust is taught at the Holten Richmond Middle School, where, among others, students read “I Promised I Would Tell” by the late Sonia Schreiber Weitz, a Holocaust survivor and poet from Peabody.
How the district dealt with the allegations were raised at a March 8 school board meeting, when former School Committee Chairman David Thomson read a statement that said after the 2020 graduation, additional concerns were raised on social media about “this team.”
Thomson said the investigator found the coaches were unaware of the activities taking place in the locker room, and that students and employees were disciplined, but he did not elaborate.
The board instructed the superintendent to improve the culture at Danvers High, starting with “comprehensive workshops on equity and inclusion” beginning with 150 winter sports athletes, Thomson said. These workshops will continue on during future sports seasons.
“The topic was on the school committee agenda for several months,” Thomson said in an email, “and we highlighted these initiatives and more, but people don’t seem to recognize what was done or be willing to accept that some issues can’t be publicly disclosed because of laws related to minors or personnel.” Thomson said he was not speaking in any official capacity.