GROTON, N.Y. – Tucked away on the north end of Groton’s spacious Main Street sits Casper’s Diner, a classic small town eatery rich with coffee and food and the voices where the social conscience of any rural American town takes its shape.
From the booths and stools of the diner villagers congregate over savory meals and a friendly environment to banter about politics, the economy, local news and local sports, and, just as fervently, rumor. A kitschy sign atop the stainless steel coffee urn sets the tone for the social attitude of village life: “The nice part about living in a small town is that when you don’t know what you’re doing, someone else always does.”
That token of wisdom has underscored the dilemma facing a community puzzled by how to respond when teenagers alone in a high school locker room unleash a torrent that continues to divide this quiet rural town. That brutal moment has now rippled for months through coffee shops, family dining rooms, school board meetings, a courtroom, and, in the end, left a community scrambling to figure out how to react when kids treat kids badly.
“They were so amazingly aggressive with these young people. The school was trying to punish as many football players as they could, regardless of any evidence. Even those not involved were treated as if guilty.”
Finding consensus on what happened, what should have been done — and what is left to do — has plagued this community as it comes to grips with what some call a culture of hazing. Gorton is a town of about 5,000 people outside Ithaca, N.Y. in the southern tier area of New York State.
The community is not alone when it comes to incidents in high school football this fall.
In New Jersey, seven players at Sayreville War Memorial High, all ages 15 to 17, were charged in connection with the hazing and sexual assaults of four teammates inside the high school’s locker room . The Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office has until Monday to determine whether to try any of the juvenilles as adults.
In suburban Philadelphia, Central Bucks West — one of the state’s most renowned football programs — canceled the last two games because of allegations of hazing that occurred last summer but didn’t come to light until mid-October. No charges have been filed.
In Gorton, almost all agree that two high school upperclassmen who used an unsupervised locker room as an arena to haze and bully a freshman teammate went far beyond any reasonable limits and into criminality.
In the opinion of some, those who didn’t know what they were doing were the Groton school district administrators.
Some critics say officials botched the handling of the episode, distorting the message to guilt by association, leading to the forfeiture of one football game and leaving players and football families alone as grist in the rumor mill.
Another set of critics say administrators didn’t do enough to protect children and adequately punish those responsible.
Buffeted by criticism on both sides has been Superintendent James Abrams, who as head of the district has taken responsibility for the messaging related to the crimes on the high school campus.
It’s an untenable position for the school leader, caught between two reasonable and opposing forces when trying to protect young people from the misdeeds of their peers.
“I’ve heard the community is pretty split. It’s either a real bad thing or just kids being kids,” said Arthur “Dewey” Dawson, the town justice who now must level punishment for the two young men who on Oct. 31 admitted their guilt to harassment.
On Sept. 10, a warm, overcast Wednesday afternoon, more than a dozen athletes went about their normal locker room routines. Then, in one row, two teenagers took hold of a teammate, subdued him in a double arm bar and, acting together, repeatedly harassed and subjected the victim to physical contact that made him fear injury, according to court records.
By that Thursday, school administrators found out about the harassment, and after an investigation contacted police. Later, Abrams recorded an audio message that a hazing incident had occurred at the high school, and broadcast that message to the phones of every parent in the school district.
Instead of bringing calm, the attempt at transparency backfired in the eyes of many. Parents of football players scrambled for information from their sons about what happened, and whether their child was involved — either as perpetrator or victim — and left space for everyone else in the district to form their own supposition.
School officials responded by canceling that Friday’s football game. By the next week, however, the rest of the season’s games were back on the schedule.
Some criticized Abrams and school officials for acting too harshly and punishing the entire team with the forfeit. When games resumed, others blamed officials for being too milquetoast.
“It was a complex situation with a lot of things happening at once,” Abrams said. “We never thought, ‘geez, there’s a win here.’ There’s not. We manage it just like anything in life; we learn and try to make it better in the future.”
Parents of football players allege school officials took an overly aggressive approach to discovering evidence, sometimes using intimidation and not doing enough to dispel the notion that all players were guilty.
“They were so amazingly aggressive with these young people,” said Joseph Sirvent, the father of a sophomore player on the team who was not involved in the harassment. “The school was trying to punish as many football players as they could, regardless of any evidence.
“Even those not involved were treated as if guilty,” he said.
In the community, that uncertainty spread into gossip mongering and recriminations that every football player was trouble, Sirvent said. It got as bad as threats of violence on social media, he said.
Sirvent and others are quick to say that no one condones hazing, that the boys responsible were wrong in their actions, and deserve appropriate punishment.
For some, a misdemeanor charge for the two young men fell far short of justice.
“They are getting a slap on the hand,” said Rebecca Mayne, of Groton, who said the incident convinced her son to quit the football team and not to try out for the wrestling team this winter.
The culture of bullying throughout Groton sports created an atmosphere that is dangerous for athletes, and does a poor job preparing them for life, she said.
In the football case, she felt the actions exceeded that of mere bullying and hazing and crossed the line into sexual misconduct.
The family of the victim has come out to criticize the handling of the episode by school officials and authorities.
“I expect my children to be safeguarded and protected while in your care. You have failed at this,” the victim’s mother told the assembled school board on Oct. 20. “You allowed my son to be sexually assaulted, bullied and hazed,” she said. The mother is not named to protect the identity of her son.
The one-page accusatory document from Tompkins County Sheriff’s Investigator Rick Tubbs makes no mention of a sexual nature to the harassment.
Rumors and opinions
Pouring coffee mid-morning at Casper’s Diner, waitress Nicole Chaffee recounted how conversation swirled for weeks about what happened that day in the locker room.
Conflicting rumors of what did and did not happen, gossip of who did what to whom, with some patrons chastising the poor decisions of the students while others pontificated about whether it was a big deal at all, held the attention of diners.
For many middle-aged patrons, mostly men, according to Chaffee, the dominant opinion held that too much was being made of an incident that, when they were younger, would have been overlooked, or treated as boys just being boys.
Travis Apgar knows well that perspective.
“This is a topic that has the potential to really divide communities. Which, from my perspective, I always feel a little sad about that. It doesn’t have to be that way.”
Apgar, the associate dean of students at Cornell University, has taken an outspoken lead against the culture of hazing at his own campus and elsewhere. His stance, he said, has been castigated by some as “trying to add to the wussification of our students.”
It has only been recently that people have become aware of what hazing is, and how prevalent it is throughout organizations. From team sports to band clubs, hazing has been a part of culture so long that many dismiss it, Apgar said.
“Sometimes we just kind of say, ‘this is what happens; this is part of growing up. I did it, so it’s OK if you do it’,” he told parents and Groton community members on Monday during a presentation organized to inform town members about the dangers of hazing.
Only by parents and educators communicating the seriousness of those misdeeds can the problem be confronted, Apgar argued.
“This is a topic that has the potential to really divide communities. Which, from my perspective, I always feel a little sad about that. It doesn’t have to be that way,” Apgar said.
After the first divisions started to spread in Groton following the revelations in September, Sirvent and his wife created a large banner with the school logo and assurance that “varsity football has our support.”
For a week the family hung the banner outside their Cayuga Street home, which Sirvent said received positive attention from football families and players.
Sometime on the evening of Oct. 3, a vandal made their disapproval known with seven slashes through the cloth banner.
“It felt very personal by how much damage was done,” he said.
When he came home after midnight following a double-shift in Auburn, Sirvent, still wearing his corrections officer uniform, repaired the banner with fresh rope and plastic zip ties threaded into seams of the shredded banner.
By daybreak, the sign once again hung across his yard.
Picking up the pieces
Sirvent and other football player families say their sons have been vilified for the actions of a few.
For issues of hazing studied by Apgar, rooting out persistent bad behavior means going beyond just the culprits who got caught.
“It’s because it’s a cultural issue. It’s not just a few people acting badly,” Apgar said Monday in Groton.
Apgar said that one insidious aspect of hazing is that it leaves unseen wounds to accompany the physical pains that can arise.
“Hazing, the part that we don’t think about enough, or talk about enough, is the mental, emotional, psychological impact that it has on a person,” Apgar said.
The victim’s mother made clear how the assault has continued to torment her son.
“I really wish that parents could step in my shoes, and see how this has affected my son and my family,” she said at the Oct. 20 board meeting. “I’d like people to step in our shoes to see how traumatic it was, and is and continues to be.”
Where some can be unfazed by initiation rituals, others incur tremendous devastation that can go beyond any physical inflictions.
“It traumatizes the child,” Mayne said of hazing. As a kid, Mayne experienced her own share of bullying and even, she admitted, bullied others. She learned from that experience and made it a point to teach her own children that “you wont get anywhere in life bullying kids,” she said.
Trying to heal
To deal with the ongoing issues dividing the community, Abrams and the school district announced a committee led by athletic director Billie Downs to revise the code of conduct to more explicitly lay out language, expectations, and mechanisms to prevent recurrences.
“In any crisis, there is always looking back. Those closest to it have looked at what our actions were and how we responded, and now we are trying to learn from them.”
James Abrams, Superintendent
“In any crisis, there is always looking back. Those closest to it have looked at what our actions were and how we responded, and now we are trying to learn from them,” Abrams said.
He expects the revised code will define what is considered hazing and provide structures to address responses to future problems. He said the committee is looking for feedback before it gets sent to the board, which would need to approve any measures. He expected recommendations to be ready by January.
“I don’t think an incident like this is healed over night,” Abrams said.
To help close the rifts through the town, the district has convened committees, brought it experts to address community members, held motivational speeches and team building activities for student-athletes in a bid to nudge the culture away from hazing and bullying.
Even with fall sports completed the specter of the incident still hangs over Groton. The district hired an outside investigator to look into the culture of hazing among students, and to whether adult football coaches had direct knowledge of the bullying or should have known that bullying was taking place.
Abrams did not know when that investigation would be complete.
For the teenagers who admitted the harassment, they await sentencing from Town Justice Dawson, who has discretion over the length of punishment. The charge carries a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail and a $500 fine; the minimum sentence would be one year probation, Dawson said.
With winter sports about to begin the rumors continue to swirl, even as the children at the heart of the incident try to recover from that day in September.
“It’s hard to believe something like this could happen here,” said Chaffee, pouring coffee at Casper’s Diner. “It’s just sad.”