Mepham victims file suitCharge Central District officials knew about past hazing , but didn't act
By: Scott Brinton and Hector Flores
Attorneys for the three victims in the Mepham High School football sex-abuse scandal are building a civil case against the Bellmore-Merrick Central District around two central themes.
Last Wednesday, the attorneys announced lawsuits against the district, Superintendent Dr. Thomas Caramore, Mepham Principal John Didden, the five football coaches, the three perpetrators and their parents. The attorneys did not specify a dollar amount they are seeking, but said they wanted fair compensation for the victims and their families.
The lawyers Michael Rubin, Robert Kelly and David Woycik contend that district officials knew about past hazing, but did not properly address it. Their failure to act, they said, led to a permissive atmosphere at the Mepham football camp in Pennsylvania last August, which resulted in three varsity players sexually assaulting their clients with a broomstick, pine cones and a golf ball.
The attorneys also said district officials allowed a known bully, Ken Carney, to attend the football camp, despite warnings from parents that Carney had threatened another student shortly before the camp. According to the attorneys, Carney turned out to be the ringleader in the attacks.
A Pennsylvania grand jury recently released its much-anticipated report about the scandal. During a news conference in Mineola last Wednesday, Rubin said, The grand jury report only reaffirmed what we have said from the beginning that the coaches were negligent and that there was a history of hazing. The report details what they should have done and how they were negligent.
Did Didden say it?
Kelly said Didden, the Mepham principal, had to have known about past hazing. One of the three victims was a sophomore and two were freshmen. (Previously, media outlets had reported that all three were ninth-graders.) According to Kelly, When the parents of my client told Didden what had happened to their son [the sophomore], he said, ÔI-m surprised this happened to your son. It usually happens to freshmen.-
Kelly added, For the principal and coaches to say that they didn-t know about hazing is just ridiculous.
On Thursday, Superintendent Caramore released a prepared statement in response to Kelly-s remark. Caramore said, The conversations the parents are reporting took place at an emotionally charged meeting when the parents listened to the unspeakable trauma their child endured.
My heart goes out to the families and for the students who were the victims in this terrible tragedy, the superintendent said. I have thoroughly grilled the principal and assistant principal, who were both present during the interview, and it is very clear to me that the parents- recollections of the principal-s comments are in error. I am confident that Mr. Didden never made the comments that were attributed to him by the parents.
Fred Cohen, Bellmore-Merrick-s former assistant superintendent for instruction who retired in 2002, said he couldn-t imagine Didden would have known about hazing and allowed it to go unchecked. And he couldn-t see Didden making a statement like the one that Kelly claimed he had.
Cohen, who knows Didden well, said of the principal, He would never allow cruelty to be done to kids...If there-s anything that he stands for as a person and as a principal, that-s it.
A current Mepham teacher, who did not wish to be identified, described Didden as a gentle man. Never in a million years would he tolerate or allow hazing, the teacher said.
ÔCulture- of hazing?
The grand jury report did not state that sexual assault had been part of hazing at Mepham High School or at past football camps (there were two before 2003). It stated that, at the camp, players punched or beat up one another, dunked one another-s heads in toilet bowls and flushed, and squirted toothpaste in underclassmen-s hair.
The report also spoke of Freshmen Friday, an annual day of hazing at Mepham and numerous other South Shore schools when upperclassmen pick on ninth-grade boys. According to three Mepham freshmen, on that day, ninth-graders have their books knocked out of their hands, or get punched, stuffed in a locker or duct-taped to the flagpole.
Central District administrators, teachers, parents and students interviewed by the Herald all denied claims by the victims- attorneys and findings in the grand jury report that there was, or is, a pervasive culture of hazing at Mepham. All said hazing has taken place at Mepham in the past, but it was no greater than at any other high school, and known hazing was not tolerated. It was dealt with swiftly.
One teacher said, Is Mepham any different than our society? The trouble, the teacher said, is that hazing has never been reported. So little of it is ever reported. How can you act on something that is never reported?
Teachers said Freshmen Friday took place at Mepham in the past, but it was never sanctioned. They also said they never saw upperclassmen do more than knock freshmen-s books out of their hands. Offending students were spoken with immediately and required to help freshmen collect their belongings.
Cohen said that during his 23 years as an administrator in the Bellmore-Merrick District, he never heard the term Freshmen Friday. Cohen, who was Kennedy High School-s principal during the 1980s, said he saw one incident of hazing. While he was Kennedy-s principal, a football player had his head dunked in a toilet bowl, in clean water. He was uninjured. The offending student was suspended immediately, Cohen said.
A known bully
According to several sources, including the grand jury report, Carney was a known Bully at Mepham. One teacher said she saw him slam another student into a locker for no apparent reason while walking the high school-s halls. The teacher noted that he was larger than most other Mepham students were. He, however, wasn-t monstrously big. His often erratic behavior scared others.
The three victims- mothers said during a recent Board of Education meeting that Carney, whom they did not identify by name, had been suspended from school 12 times. According to knowledgeable district sources, the number of suspensions was fewer, probably between three and six. Education law bars Central District officials from commenting about Carney.
The victims- attorneys and the grand jury report also said Carney had threatened teachers. According to a Mepham source, he allegedly threatened a teacher on the last day of school in June 2003. A teacher approached Carney, wondering why he was milling about in the hall when he should not have been. The source said Carney got angry, cursed at the teacher, called him a name and threatened to follow him home. At the end of the day, Carney followed the teacher to his car, but carried his threat no further.
The incident went unreported, according to the source, because it happened on the last day of school when there was no way to punish Carney. It was unclear whether the Mepham coaches, who could not be reached for comment, were aware of Carney-s alleged threat against the teacher.
There are two competing theories why Carney was allowed to attend the camp. One, which the grand jury reported as the reason, was that Carney was a good football player.
The other was that the coaches saw football as a way to reform Carney, who had acted out before the camp, but had reportedly done nothing to indicate he would sexually assault younger players.
The coaches apparently believed Carney was controllable. During a recent Board of Education meeting, head Coach Kevin McElroy said in a prepared statement, I have had troublesome students on my football team in the past, and I have worked with them, encouraged them, and helped them graduate and become productive members of society...I would never have taken a student on my team if I felt that I couldn-t control him.
According to sources, McElroy, who made the dorm assignments at the training camp, placed a ninth-grader who Carney had previously threatened in the cabin closest to the coaches- and farthest from Carney-s.
In an earlier interview, McElroy said he did not know about the sex attacks last August, an assertion supported by the grand jury report. When he returned from camp, he reported to Didden that Carney-s threat against the freshman never materialized. The ninth-grader-s father said his son wasn-t aware during camp that the attacks had taken place.
At the camp, the coaches assigned squad leaders as bunk supervisors. One of the assailants, Phil Sofia a team captain, Eagle Scout candidate and respected student acted as a bunk captain. McElroy was likely referring to the 6-2, 220-pound Sofia during the board meeting when he said, A student that possessed tremendous potential betrayed my trust. I never imagined that he would become part of a vicious gang that preyed on my youngest players.
Carney was not, as some media outlets have reported, assigned as a bunk captain.
Only one of the three assailants- lawyers, Mark Alter, could be reached for comment. Alter would only say the victims- lawsuits were expected.