Now comes the math – and early returns are not promising. Prospects for success are shaky at best, with the initiative relying largely on aspiration and education rather than tougher policies to better hold schools, staff and students accountable for misconduct.
In contrast, no incidents of abuse have been reported in the school year that has just begun. It’s very early days, of course, but some are hoping that the message has gotten through and that the heightened awareness of school officials may have changed the climate.
“Fingers are crossed,” said Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “The situation is not foolproof.”
The disturbing eruption of misconduct last year – from the alleged racial and homophobic hazing assault on a hockey player at Danvers High School to the beating of a 14-year-old boy by a mob of football teammates at Woburn Memorial High School – compelled Attorney General Maura Healey in April to convene a conference of policy makers to tackle abuse.
The conference – “Combating 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.
Further action could emerge from a second conference, originally scheduled for late summer but which has now been pushed back to October at the earliest. A series of regional training sessions for athletic staff and high school administrators by the northeast center should follow.
“This moment is an opportunity to ensure that school athletics and our society as a whole, in the face of hate and prejudice, show leadership and create an ongoing culture of inclusion,” Healey said in a statement. communicated to the Globe. “My office will continue to empower superintendents, managers, athletic directors, coaches, referees and others to realize their potential by creating a positive, safe and supportive environment within their teams and in their school communities.”
It remains to be seen with what energy communities react. Two initiatives launched by the MIAA prior to the April conference have produced mixed results. One demanded that the organization’s 374 member schools, which serve more than 215,000 interscholastic sports participants, report incidents of abuse. The new database has helped the organization identify and respond to issues more effectively, according to MIAA Executive Director Bob Baldwin.
In several instances, Baldwin said, he and other MIAA officials met privately with teams who incited abuse or were themselves targeted, in part through information received through the reporting process.
The other new rule, however, has been more difficult to enforce: a requirement that all student-athletes, coaches and athletic directors complete an online course called “Implicit Bias” annually, produced by the National Federation of State High Schools. Associations. , as well as read and sign the MIAA Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Pledge.
Conservative groups protested, expressing their opposition to the MIAA’s imperious 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 Jewish-Christian values upon which it is based,” released a statement two days after the April conference, claiming he had received complaints from coaches. , student-athletes and parents.
“Some said they complied with the MIAA mandate out of fear of losing a coaching job or not being allowed to play on a sports team,” the institute’s president said. Andrew Beckwith, 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, reluctantly stopped enforcing compliance, Baldwin said. He recited sections of the pledge, like the one calling for a pledge to “create a hate-free school,” and asked why anyone would object.
“We try to be human, respectful and encourage good behavior,” Baldwin said.
He said discussions are underway with the attorney general’s office, state education department and civil rights groups to develop policies and programs “even more powerful” than the course and online engagement.
After the April conference, Healey’s office issued new guidelines for preventing and responding to hate incidents, though the notice essentially serves as a reminder to school officials of their legal obligations and responsibilities.
Some advocates say the problem demands much 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 take commitment. more ambitious in teaching coaches and students how to create and maintain safe sports. environments.
Lyons also founded GetPsychedSports.org, which launched a campaign encouraging victims and witnesses of abuse in school sports to come forward, using the End Abusive Coaching website.
At Northeastern, the Center for the Study of Sport in Society has been training professional and amateur leagues, colleges, military branches, police departments, and high schools in abuse and hate prevention and response for many years. . The center plans to hold 12 two-day training sessions this fall for high school principals, athletic directors and coaches across the state.
“We live in complex times, and times like these always require the courage of conviction to expose and respond to egregious behavior,” said Dan Lebowitz, the center’s executive director.
Scott said the Last year’s unrest has already spurred unprecedented positive communication between the Superintendents’ Association and the MIAA and has made resolving the crisis a priority among school officials.
“It’s clearly on everyone’s mind right now,” Scott said. “If the supervision is not where it needs to be, the children will take advantage of it. We have to be diligent about this.
Already this school year, law enforcement authorities beyond Massachusetts have investigated at least five reports of hazing, including one so egregious in Mechanicsville, Pennsylvania, that school officials canceled the entire team season. Another case, in San Antonio, resulted in the suspension of 21 players.
Trauma escalated in several Massachusetts communities last year when school and city leaders delayed responding to misconduct or withheld details from the public, as if the problem would go away. That just can’t be the case, Baldwin said.
“Things will happen again, and when something happens, you have to deal with it immediately,” he said. “That’s the biggest lesson anyone can learn.”
Bob Hohler can be reached at [email protected]