Mepham Pain and Mepham Shame

By Jane Weinkrantz

            It is hard to tell what was more shocking: the revelation that several underclassmen who were members of the Mepham Varsity football team were instrumentally sodomized by upperclassmen while they attended a summer training camp in Pennsylvania or the community’s reactions which were at once appropriate (canceling the football season) and bizarre, ( two weeks before the perpetrators were suspended and adults engaging in ill-advised public displays of “Mepham Pride.”)

            However heinous a crime, there is always some relief when justice follows swiftly and appropriately. Had the perpetrators confessed and apologized, had cooperation with the authorities been immediate and substantial, had school discipline been meted out quickly and firmly, had witnesses stepped forward and spoken out, those of us watching the Mepham disaster from afar might not have felt so disgusted just as those who were so cruelly victimized might have felt that their town supported them and understood how very violated they were. Unfortunately,  Mepham administrators and coaches seem more concerned with preserving the community’s image and avoiding legal ramifications than examining how their choices may have contributed to this crime.

            For example, high school principal John Didden was contacted prior to the football trip by parents Victor and Kristine Reichstein who described threats one of the accused players had made towards their underclassmen son. They asked Didden to bar the older player from the trip in order to protect their son’s safety; Didden refused. Superintendent Caramore has since described the threats the Reichsteins  described as a “dispute” between two players. According to Caramore,

 Didden, “immediately addressed the issue by meeting with the student and the coach prior to their departure on the trip. Clear expectations of behavior were defined, and the student assured the principal that he would comply. Based on the facts presented to him, the principal did not feel that this boys or any other students were in danger. No one could have anticipated alleged criminal behavior on the part of this or any student.”

Additionally, the Nassau County Principals Association issued a statement  in which they expressed their unequivocal support for Didden.

            O.K., let’s say that Didden met with student who allegedly told the Reichsteins’ son, “Don’t even think about sleeping at camp”  And let’s say the boy said, “I promise not to bully him anymore. Ever, ever, ever. Can I still go on the trip? Please?” What right-thinking principal with over a decade of professional  experience is going to say, “Oh, all right. As long as you promise! Football player’s honor!” If we all took our student’s pledges for everything, we wouldn’t need principals because we wouldn’t need anyone to create or execute a discipline plan. Our high schools would run themselves on honor. Accepting that boy’s promise without some plan for additional supervision was an act of tragic naivete, stupidity or indifference. How dare the Nassau County Principals Assocation, which counts our own administrators as members, support such behavior?

            As for Caramore’s statement that , “No one could have anticipated alleged criminal behavior on the part of this or any student,” again a few years in education and  a regular habit of reading the newspaper should have taught him the following Golden Rule of School Trips: Kids on trips get into trouble.

 Not all of them. Not all the time. However, it is a well-known fact in this business that students on field trips require more supervision---not less---when they are away from home because there are more variables, more risks and because they have a funny habit of testing limits. I’m not saying head coach  Kevin McElroy should have been saying, “Gee, let’s go burst in on the bunks at 2:00 a.m. I have a funny feeling those boys are sodomizing the freshmen with pine cones and broom sticks.” No one could have predicted that. But alcohol, drugs,  and less severe hazing are things an  experienced coach should have been on the lookout for and he and his colleagues should have supervised their charges accordingly. If that meant unexpected bed checks into the wee hours, so be it.  Parents of students who were on the trip say there were no bed checks after 10:00 PM.

So is the Mepham incident simply a matter of stupidity or laziness on the parts of the principal and the coaches? Some Mepham residents don’t think so. They see this crime as part of a culture that isolated parents, protected hazing and routinely victimized underclassmen. According to Wesley Berger, a 24 year old who was hazed when he was a Mepham Pirate in 1994,  playing football in Mepham meant having his head put in a urine filled toilet and getting his head hit on the porcelain until he sustained a concussion.

Berger told New York magazine, “Of course this thing escalated to sodomy. This guy’s still the head coach.” Coach McElroy has been quiet since the training camp assaults occurred, stating only, “We as coaches do not see this incident as hazing but as a criminal act.”( Note that hazing is something the school district would be legally culpable for whereas it would not be liable for “a criminal act.”) He has an attorney.

            One parent of a freshman, Terry, had raised concerns prior to the trip, but met with little cooperation from the coaches. She told reporter Hector Flores, “Before the trip, I had asked the coach if ninth graders would be placed with 12th graders and I was told that they wouldn’t. [Coach McElroy] said that the ninth and tenth grades would be placed together and the 11th and 12th grades would be placed together. He made me feel like I was an overprotective mother who was annoying him with all these questions. The reason I was curious about the sleeping arrangements…was because I was afraid of the rough- housing or that ninth graders would be introduced to alcohol or tobacco.” The sleeping assignments were not by grade level; students were mixed.

            Parents also received very little information about the camp itself. Flores writes, “The only thing parents were told about the trip was the name of the camp and the dates their children were scheduled to attend…phone numbers, addresses and contact information weren’t made available to parents.” Terry told Flores, “When it came time for them to leave, [parents] were talking among ourselves and saying how little information we had. And it was not like the coaches were talking to us to put our minds at ease.” After the attacks, Terry began taking her son to a psychiatrist. She is not certain that he was not one of those victimized by the upperclassmen.

            While Mepham adults have plenty to complain about regarding how the trip was handled, some  have behaved in ways that were less than worthy. People who spoke in support of the victims received threatening letters. Some parents encouraged their children not to cooperate with the legal investigation. In short, if it takes a village to raise a child, some members of the village had very strange priorities, producing a few very dangerous children.

            Which may be why everyone is laying blame and no one is accepting any. To face the facts in the Mepham case is to look at a reflection of values that most people don’t want to see. Thus, instead of “Mepham Shame” or even “Mepham self-examination”, we have Mepham Pride with parents and administrators eagerly chronicling the district’s accomplishments. In an article about Mepham’s football-less homecoming celebration, Newsday reporter Karla Schuster wrote,  “…Everyone here is still raw and defensive sometimes. Why doesn’t anyone talk about the number of students who graduate with Regents diplomas, students and staff say. Or the laundry list of community service projects they do every year or that … two Mepham kids were named semifinalists in the prestigious Siemens Westinghouse competition that honors achievement in math, science and technology? For years, they say, students have been winning awards, doing good deeds and making good grades. Nobody noticed.”

            Perhaps those things were their own reward, without notice from the general public. Also, perhaps those of us watching the spectacle of Mepham are uncomfortable with the community’s doling out equal amounts of sympathy for seniors whose “school spirit” has been harmed by the episode (“They only go to school once”,  science teacher Jason Vitale told Newsday, “and you want them to have good memories, fun memories.”) the perpetrators (“The kid that did it, I feel so bad for him I don’t even care what they did,” a student told New York  magazine) the football players who were unable to showcase their athletic talents to colleges (Mary Williams, a Mepham football parent told New York, “My son doesn’t have a senior season to put on his college application…I know the family of one of the attackers. They’re a beautiful family. My son thinks it’s just a bad thing that went too far, too fast.”) and last but not least, the victims. Said Superintendent Caramore, “While this incident has been upsetting to all of us sitting here, I continually remind myself what this is really about---it’s not about me or the principal or the coaches or cancellation of the football season. This is about students who were victims of an alleged assault. I think we all need to remind ourselves of this.”

             My question is: how could anyone forget?



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