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A rallying cry for young athletes

Updated: November 29, 2012 2:26AM



The floodgates have opened. Sordid accounts of sexual assaults, bullying and hazing at Maine West High School are pouring out in a civil suit filed against the school and Maine Township District 207 by past and present students.

Three of the students were freshmen when they allegedly were sexually assaulted. They were gifted soccer players who had been promoted to the varsity team, a noteworthy achievement for any freshman.

But a freshman with considerable talent still will have insecurities. During the school day he might be shy and awkward in the hallways, especially at the beginning of the school year. In that case, an acknowledgment — a simple hello — from an older teammate in the cafeteria would make his day.

On the playing field, a freshman might not know how the team conducts practice drills. He will look to older players for guidance.

A true team rallies around its vulnerable youngsters. If the team goes out for pizza, the older players make sure the freshmen have a ride, a gesture to drive home the point that they function as a unit.

All this might sound idealistic, but this is how juniors and seniors treated me when as a freshman I ran with the varsity cross-country and track teams at Maine West, the same high school at the center of the lawsuit alleging abhorrent behavior.

The suit alleges that in September two freshmen, now plaintiffs, were held down, beaten and sodomized by their varsity teammates. Another former soccer player alleges that the same happened to him in 2007.

A fourth unnamed former student, who played baseball, is now part of the suit, alleging that after being promoted from the freshman B to freshman A team in spring 2008, he was stripped down from the waist by his teammates in the locker room and repeatedly bullied in the months that followed.

His mother requested that her son be transferred to Maine East, citing the abuse in an August 2008 letter to Maine West Principal Audrey Haugan. The mother said Wednesday at a press conference that Haugan approved the transfer the same day. District officials said in a statement Wednesday that the superintendent became aware of that incident this month — four years later.

The common link, according to the lawsuit, are coaches Michael Divincenzo and Emilio Rodriguez, who have been reassigned by the district. According to the suit, they encouraged the abuse. The school district is investigating with DCFS.

Ten students have been disciplined by the school; six have been charged as juveniles by the Des Plaines Police with misdemeanors.

Tony Romanucci, the lawyer for the victims, is calling for the firing of the coaches, Haugan and Supt. Ken Wallace. Romanucci sees parallels between this case and the Penn State scandal involving former football coach Jerry Sandusky, who is in prison for molesting children. Iconic football coach Joe Paterno lost his job for doing nothing to stop Sandusky.

“Joe Paterno wasn’t a part of it,” Romanucci said. “He turned a blind eye to it.”

Across the country, administrators and teachers need to keep an eye on this case and their own schools’ programs.

Administrators continually demand higher test scores from teachers and students, but similar oversight and care is needed for extracurricular clubs such as debate, cheerleading and athletics.

These programs groom leaders, who in turn look out for others.



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