Hey, Adults: you failed the kids in your care.
That was the bitter takeaway from an impassioned public meeting on hazing at Conestoga High School Monday night.
The school district called the pow-wow, seeking input on ways to handle the football hazing scandal that’s roiled top-rated Stoga since the Chester County DA announced juvenile assault charges against three senior players and a separate school district investigation uncovered hazing that goes back years.
What school officials got instead was an earful: an ardent defense of ousted head coach John Vogan and his staff and a lot of lip about how adults – from the DA to the district – had let kids down.
Indeed, former Coach Vogan’s ears had to be burning as assistant coaches (now fired), parents and current and former players rose to his defense.
More than 150 T/E folks showed up at the public meeting, 27 of whom lined up to speak.
Starting the fireworks was fired 13-year assistant coach Tom Batgos, who played Stoga football 40 years ago alongside Vogan and whose son played eight years ago. Batgos lamented the “sensationalistic image” of Vogan “portrayed to the media,” which he says “pounced” on Vogan, a coach “who has changed many lives for the better.” He talked about how Vogan has long (and famously) welcomed Sonny DiMartini, a young man with Down Syndrome, to his teams. He mentioned how, on Senior Night, players routinely “choked up and cried” (happy tears) about their Conestoga football experience under Coach Vogan.
After that came a series of concerned folks posing questions and pointing fingers:
- From a football mom/social worker: Are adults allowed in the lockers rooms?
“Coaches are expected to supervise locker rooms,” responded Principal Amy Meisinger.
- Is the district investigating other sports besides football?
Meisinger: We will work with the captains of all teams to install “best practices” as recommended by outside expert(s) still to be hired.
- From the Head Coach/President of the Conestoga Generals: “How will T/E handle hiring a new football coach and staff?”
T/E planned to post the new position pronto and a committee of 12-15 will handle hiring. The new coach picks his own staff (5 assistant coaches). Fired assistant coaches can re-apply for their positions for the following fall season.
- From a football mom: “School board, you let our children down on a variety of levels. You’re responsible for this. You didn’t do your job … What are you going to do to make those boys [accused football players] feel welcome when they return to school? … What are you going to do tomorrow to clean up this mess?”
Although the school district can’t comment on disciplinary action, Meisinger said staff will “work with families to support” returning students. (According to the parent, the accused seniors were suspended for five days, then suspended again for another five.)
- From Sonny DiMartini’s father, Vince, a 29-year veteran of Easttown police and former security guard at Stoga: “The DA sensationalized the entire event; he took an opportunity to get in front of the microphones to discredit Conestoga High School. [Applause from many in the crowd.] Then DiMartini throws in this hot potato: “I was a victim of hazing in the 1960s. In 1970, I did the hazing.” Then adds: “There are six more victims here; they’re called assistant coaches.”
- From Bill Armiger, a founder of Conestoga Youth Lacrosse and former Stoga parent: “I want to hear about boots on the ground” for better supervision and teaching of appropriate behavior.
Meissinger: “We need to look at the whole school community.” Figuring out why no students came forward to tell adults about the hazing in their locker room is a “priority piece” for the school district.
- From Linda Jarrett Armiger, teacher and school counselor in a different district and a former Stoga parent: “The victims are the kids … I struggle [with the claim] that no adults were aware. Kids talk; that’s what they do.” Then adds: “This is a systemic problem … the only way we can make changes is to acknowledge it and not sweep it under the rug.” (Both Armigers were applauded, mostly from non-football families.)
- From a tennis and squash team mom concerned about recent changes to spirit day rules and team culture at Stoga: “This is not a systemic problem. Conestoga has many great coaches and students who are doing the right thing. Our teams don’t need any more oversight than they already have … Let’s not punish all the kids who go to the school because of what a few kids who may or may not have done.”
- From an elementary school parent: “I’ve seen nothing that makes me want to send my child to Conestoga.” Bravely (considering the mostly pro-football crowd around her) she asked, “What would happen if Conestoga didn’t have a football team?” School Superintendent Richard Gusick explained that cancelling the season would be “the easy solution” and that school officials had “five months to work with students” and make changes.
- From a former Stoga parent and grandparent: “Everyone has let the kids down. All I’ve heard [tonight] is educational psychobabble … Are you going to have adults in the locker room?”
- From Scott Born, a parent of three Stoga graduates, the first of two speakers to mention the Duke lacrosse rape scandal (after which players were exonerated). “I’ve personally witnessed the damage to a kid being convicted by the media in the court of public opinion before the case was fully investigated.” Born gave T/E the thumbs up for its investigation and determination to make changes but felt “the DA overstepped its bounds in the school district.” (The district solicitor and superintendent repeatedly emphasized that it had no control over how the DA conducted its investigation. Several football parents called out that their sons were interviewed by the DA’s office without their knowledge/consent.)
- From a current Stoga senior: “Don’t let this event cover up the amazing things Conestoga does for students.” He urged the school board to “push programs that promote a sense of school unity” because “kids take pride in one area of Stoga” (e.g. theatre, sports, etc.). He called students’ failure to report hazing “the administration’s fault. We don’t know the administration.”
- From a Stoga parent: “We’re ranked #1 in the nation, but with this issue hanging over our heads, I don’t believe we are #1.” She, too, was “baffled” that there were no adults in the locker room. She called hazing “a cultural issue” and called on the board to “look at each other” and “set the tone.” To which Board President Doug Carlson replied: “We are facing it. There is no tolerance, no place for those things in our schools.”
- From the mother of a sophomore football player: “Not everyone on the football team was involved” and players “have a target on their backs now; no one is standing up for them.” She suggested the district clearly define what constitutes hazing.
- From Bruce Ikeda, father of former Stoga athletes: “I trusted Vogan implicitly.” Ikeda called Tom Hogan “an overzealous DA up for re-election. What was he thinking?” He also wondered why, when “kids video everything,” no hazing videos have surfaced. And finally, he hoped the district would be proactive about getting the word out when the court hands down its verdict on the Oct. 15 charges. [A robust round of applause.] To which district solicitor Kenneth Roos replied, “We won’t be in a position to publicize the outcome,” explaining that the alleged assault case is a juvenile court matter so records will be sealed.
- From a former player, eight years out: “Coach Vogan abhorred hazing, in my opinion.”
- From a Stoga graduate: “I congratulate the administration on being transparent.” But “we gotta start younger,” teaching kids to respect each other at the middle schools. “Big kids always picked on little kids. Back then you got ‘initiated.’” He added: “I never had a coach in the locker room when I was taking a shower. I’m not sure how you do that.” (Meisinger had already alluded to potential Jerry Sandusky-ish complications in her opening remarks.)
- From a former football mom, regarding coaches getting the ax: “You threw the baby out with the bathwater. Now we will have strangers dealing with our children.” She hoped the new coaching staff would get “more support” and won’t get “blindsided.”
- From two junior football players who approached the podium together: “I can’t walk into a classroom or hall without getting made fun of. Even teachers look at me differently.” We have “targets on our backs by the community and the school … We don’t know the principal at all. You got rid of the only people I feel comfortable talking to at that school [i.e. the coaches].”
Meisinger: “I’m sorry this has continued to be a burden for you to carry. You should be proud to walk onto the football field as Conestoga players.”
- From youth sports coach and district parent Mark Mayock came pointed questions about the athletic director’s role in supervising the locker room. “Why is the athletic director not up here tonight?”
Gusick explained that district felt that those involved in the investigation: the principal, the district solicitor, the superintendent, along with the school board president, were the proper people to face the public. The rest of the school board sat in the front row.
After the meeting, fired assistant coach Tom Batgos clarified a point with SAVVY. “There is no policy that coaches have to be in the locker room.” He said he’s always parked his car, walked to the field for practices, then returned to his car. “We did nothing different than the head coaches of the other 17 sports.” He also said Coach Vogan was busy dealing with minor kids’ issues before and after practice, implying there was little time for him to even think about patrolling the locker room.
SAVVY also caught up with a half-dozen junior football players, including Kade Lamarre, who expounded on his earlier gripe: “I have not gone through the [school] halls a single day without a broom or hazing joke.” (The alleged victim told authorities he was penetrated with a broom as part of ritual hazing.) We overheard Meisinger making plans to meet with Lamarre this week.
Other junior players told SAVVY about how an area rugby team recently chanted: “3-2-1-Broom” to Stoga players.
Still others complained about the torrent of online abuse they’ve received.
One thing’s for sure: The community is still smarting over this whole sordid and sorry mess – there’s anger, there’s sadness, there’s shame, there’s frustration.
Another thing that’s clear: T/E is working hard to heal the wounds – self-inflicted and otherwise.
“I hope we will remain Stoga Tall and won’t allow this to define us and that we will come out stronger on the other side,” affirmed Principal Meisinger,
And at the end of the day, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?