What exactly happened at the Brunswick High football team’s overnight retreat in August at Thomas Point Beach has not been explained publicly.
What is known is that the school superintendent has taken seriously the allegations that older players hazed younger players. Both the school department and the Brunswick Police Department have conducted investigations. Coaches have been placed on leave. Students have been booted from the team.
But while the school department’s investigation has been completed and some disciplinary action has been taken, the full effects of the alleged hazing might not be known for years.
“There’s always ripple effects,” said Elizabeth Allan, a University of Maine professor and founder of the research group StopHazing. “You’re dealing with the individuals involved, both the people who feel they were on the receiving ends and those who planned the activities, their families and friends.
“Then there’s the team itself, how it impacts the trust within the team, and it has ripple effects beyond that because, of course, all the other students are watching and learning,” Allan added. “It can be an opportunity to really shift the norms. And that depends on how the folks in leadership roles choose to respond.”
Hazing in American schools is common. At its worst it can be extremely dangerous, even lethal. Other times it might be barely recognized. But in every form, hazing boils down to those holding power in a group requiring someone joining or participating in a group to engage in an activity that humiliates, degrades, abuses or endangers them, regardless of a person’s willingness to participate.
Most states, including Maine, have educational standards that require schools to have policies that forbid hazing. Nonetheless, 47 percent of college freshmen report they were hazed in high school, according to Allan’s 2009 research, which is still considered the definitive study on high school hazing.
Elliot Hopkins is the director of sports sanctioning and student services at the National Federation of State High School Associations, the national governing body of high school sports. Over the past 28 years he has delivered over 300 public presentations aimed at getting school communities to learn about hazing, its effects, and ways to counteract it. He said he has been involved as a professional resource in about 1,000 hazing-related lawsuits – a sobering statistic in itself – and appeared as an expert witness in 20 trials.
Hopkins said once the initial investigation is conducted and consequences are laid out, there is typically a quiet grace period.
“This will die down for about a year and then what happens, lawyers start lining up,” he said.
Phil Potenziano, the Brunswick schools superintendent, said he became aware of possible hazing, bullying or assault at the retreat around Sept. 8 and began an internal investigation. He notified football parents on Sept. 16 and made it clear Brunswick had a “zero-tolerance” policy when it came to acts of hazing, bullying or assault.
A week later, Potenziano canceled the team’s homecoming game and placed head coach Dan Cooper and assistant coach Greg Nadeau on nondisciplinary administrative leave from their coaching duties.
While the team was allowed to resume practices on Tuesday and play a game at Skowhegan on Friday night, Cooper and Nadeau remain on leave, and an unspecified number of players have been removed from the team for the remainder of the season. Playing without several of their usual starters, Brunswick lost 61-14.
Potenziano said Friday evening in an email to the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram that he had received the investigation report from the school department’s legal counsel, and would need time to review it thoroughly. He added that he had not made any decision regarding the future status of the two coaches.
Brunswick has been one of the most successful high school football programs in the state over the past decade. Cooper, now in his 17th year as head coach, earned his 100th career win in the 2019 season en route to the Dragons capturing the Class B North championship for a second straight season and the fifth time in six years, including an undefeated state championship run in 2016.
This was supposed to be a season of celebration for Cooper and his family. His sons Dalton and Wes are both seniors and starters on the team. Cooper was also looking forward to Oct. 15, when Brunswick is scheduled to host perennial Class A power Bonny Eagle, coached by his cousin Kevin Cooper.
Dan Cooper said he was not willing to comment about the situation yet other than to say, “It’s been a nightmare.”
On a quiet Thursday afternoon, the customers at restaurants, coffee shops and boutiques on Brunswick’s downtown Maine Street had only passing knowledge of the alleged hazing incident. Some were unaware of it altogether. But whether they were Brunswick residents, shoppers or employees from a nearby town or tourists from Alabama, Kansas City and North Carolina, all agreed on one key point: any form of hazing is wrong.
“It doesn’t matter if there isn’t any physical harm. It’s that it’s older kids doing it to younger kids. It’s abominable,” said Melissa Kimball, a resident of neighboring Topsham who works at one of Maine Street’s retail stores. “I’m asking myself, do they still do that in the 21st century? And where are the grown-ups? Where are the adults who are supposed to be managing this stuff?”
Laura Lienert of Brunswick said her two sons Augie and Mitchell Lienert both played four years of high school football at Brunswick, graduating in 2018 and 2020, respectively.
“I will say my boys had a very positive experience with Brunswick football and I am very sad to hear that this happened,” she said. “It is never OK for anyone to feel like something like that is happening to them, but with that being said, my boys had a great experience.”
Lienert emphasized that neither she nor her sons were ever aware of hazing activity associated with the football team.
Katie Peacock, 21, also attended Brunswick High School and said she was surprised by the hazing allegations. “That’s never happened that I’ve heard of when I was there,” she said.
Bau Graves, 69, of Harpswell said he has no interest in high school sports, or sports in general. But hazing, as an act, is always demeaning.
“I think people should treat each other with decency and respect and hazing doesn’t qualify. Any sort of hazing,” Graves said. “As long as I’ve been aware of hazing, it has always seemed like a horrible thing to me.”
Stephen Beaulieu, 27, of Harpswell said the concept that a hazing ritual increases team camaraderie is flawed. Hazers might think they are pushing players to “get their best games and their best performance,” he said, “when in reality it just takes a toll on their mental health and it just brings them down.”
PHYSICAL INJURIES, EVEN DEATHS
Across the country, young people have suffered significant physical injuries, been sexually assaulted and even died as a result of hazing.
Rumors have abounded about what took place during the alleged hazing incident involving the Brunswick football team. And there is video evidence, according to Brunswick Police Chief Scott Stewart, meaning the incident may have spread across the school-age community via social media.
Before comments were scrubbed from the Brunswick Football Facebook page, which is not run by the school, several followers scoffed at the seriousness.
“I heard one thing and if that’s all that happened then this is being blown WAY out of proportion,” said one post. Another post noted that the homecoming football game shouldn’t have been canceled because of the actions of “a few bad apples.” One commenter said the whole team found the incident funny and when she heard what happened, she agreed.
But just because players may have laughed doesn’t mean the alleged hazing incident caused no harm, said Hopkins of the National Federation of State High School Associations.
“It might seem harmless to you but the kid who is going through it is petrified,” Hopkins said. “We talk about three different groups in hazing. The perpetrator, the victim, and the bystander. And there’s two types of bystanders. The active bystander who is (cheering them on) and the passive one who is up against a wall and thinking, ‘Thank God it’s not me again, or not me this time.’ And that group will almost certainly laugh only because they’re just glad it’s not them.”
Hank Nuwer, an independent journalist and former college professor, has tracked hazing deaths. According to Nuwer, there was at least one hazing death associated with a school, club or organization in the U.S. every year from 1959 to 2019, with more recorded in 2021. Since 2000, Nuwer has recorded 99 hazing deaths.
Allan, the UMaine professor, said there is no accurate data on how many hazing incidents happen annually because colleges and schools are not required to report incidents.
“We know what makes it to newspapers, and the colleges and universities that I work with and those that choose to be transparent,” she said, “but at this point it’s not consistently done, so we don’t really have the data.”
Hopkins said in his experience the majority of hazing incidents that are discovered reveal an institutional pattern of hazing – an “underlying current,” as he put it.
Hopkins said it often starts with seemingly small actions that share a core concept of the older, established members of a group forcing younger members to do something to prove they are worthy of being part of a team.
“It could be freshmen have to clean all the music instruments in a band, or the girls’ soccer freshmen have to carry the water bottles,” Hopkins said. “Then it gets escalated.”
Hopkins suggests that any school that has had a hazing incident needs to do a thorough review of all of its teams and clubs. “If they have one group that does it, they’re going to talk to other kids. ‘This is what we do to our freshmen.’ They could have an underlying culture there that they need to nip in the bud.”