Attorney says more Maine West soccer hazing victims have come forward
BY JON SEIDEL, STEFANO ESPOSITO AND ART GOLAB Staff Reporters November 20, 2012 7:22PM
Two soccer nets are chained together on the field where soccer practice occurs outside Maine West High School in Des Plaines, Illinois on November 20, 2012. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times
Updated: December 22, 2012 6:26AM
The soccer hazing scandal at Maine West High School could widen now that an attorney says more victims have come forward to say they, too, were sexually abused by other players over the past four years.
“This is not an isolated incident,” Chicago lawyer Antonio Romanucci said Tuesday, a day after filing a lawsuit against the school district and several of its soccer coaches.
Five current or former players have told him they were hazed in ways similar to an unnamed 14-year-old, who was allegedly held down, beaten and sexually assaulted by older players on the Maine West soccer field on Sept. 27.
Two players were also hazed that day, according to the lawsuit. Romanucci said he was aware of one other before the suit was filed — and two more got in contact with him since.
“And I’ve been told people are going to round up more now who know about it,” he said.
He predicted other students will join the suit filed by the 14-year-old’s parents against Maine Township High School District 207.
The hazing allegations come at time when anti-bullying campaigns have spread across the country. Yet at Maine West, the latest happened as recently as September, Romanucci said.
“If you want to call it a culture, if you want to call it history, you can call it whatever you want,” Romanucci said. “This has been going on, and kids are getting harmed.”
Des Plaines police have already charged six students as juveniles with misdemeanor battery and misdemeanor hazing, and 10 students have been disciplined. Maine Township officials also said they’ve reassigned two soccer coaches with pay while removing three others who are not teachers from their coaching responsibilities.
The district has declined in a statement to comment on the pending litigation, but it said it reported all relevant information to the police and the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services. It said it did so after it received an initial report Sept. 28, and it said the investigation is ongoing. The school district said a student told a parent of the hazing, and that parent notified the school.
“We take the misconduct involving the soccer team very seriously,” the district said in its statement.
A few school officials pushed back Tuesday, though, against Romanucci’s claim that a larger hazing culture exists in the school or on the soccer team.
“It’s not something that’s tolerated in District 207,” said Sean Sullivan, president of the district’s school board.
One 2009 Maine West graduate, 21-year-old David Puka, also told the Sun-Times he spent four years on the varsity soccer team, never participating in or hearing about any hazing rituals. He said one of the reassigned coaches, Michael Divincenzo, wouldn’t have tolerated it.
“The only hazing there was was me having to collect the balls or the cones,” Puka said.
The coach, known to his team as “Devo,” was “like a dad to every kid that was there,” Puka said. “If you needed help, he could talk to you — about grades, anything,” Puka said. “He was the first one to say something if something wasn’t right. There was no way he would allow” hazing.
Romanucci’s lawsuit said Divincenzo and coach Emilio Rodriguez witnessed the assault and let it happen, though. Rodriguez has also been reassigned, the district said.
The lawsuit claims they and other “unknown coaches” ordered the team to do a “campus run.”
According to the lawsuit, that’s when Romanucci’s client was grabbed by older members of the team, struck, held down and sexually assaulted on Sept. 27.
Teammates tore off the boy’s underwear, held him down on the school’s soccer field, grabbed his testicles and sodomized him with their fingers and other foreign objects.
The lawsuit alleged it was “part of the soccer team’s culture and has been sanctioned by its coaches for years.”
Divincenzo, the varsity coach, is described on a team website as a Maine West graduate who played soccer and baseball for the school and who is entering his 11th season as the head boys soccer coach. When reached by the Sun-Times, Divincenzo said he was advised by the school district and his union not to comment.
“I have no comment at this time,” he said.
Rodriguez could not be reached for comment.
The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office has also declined to comment. Des Plaines Police Chief William Kushner said his department consulted with the State’s Attorney’s Office and followed its advice in filing the misdemeanor charges against the six students.
Romanucci announced the lawsuit at a news conference Monday where he was joined by the 14-year-old’s mother. Her name wasn’t given, and she concealed her identity. She said she found out about the hazing from a police phone call.
“I thought my son would be safe at school,” she said. “You think when you drop off your son it’s a safe place to be. I feel like the coaches should have kept him safe on the soccer field, and they didn’t do that.”
She also said she plans to get her son some counseling.
“It’s a good thing he has a lot of love and support,” she said. “He has a big family that loves him.”
Romanucci said the teen suffered “total humiliation” and has had to leave the team. “He can’t go back to those kids.”
Romanucci said Tuesday he plans to meet with two other families, including one whose child is still seeking treatment for the hazing he received.
“I feel bad for all the families and the kids,” said the mother of Romanucci’s client, “because I honestly don’t feel like they should be at fault. I think the coaches should have stopped this. I don’t want it to happen again. I feel kids should feel safe when they go to school. They should look up to their coaches and teammates.”
Romanucci said it’s up to the school district to change students’ behavior. And he said it “acted appropriately” when it disciplined the students earlier this year.
“It starts with the adults,” Romanucci said.
Though school is out this week for students, some teens milling about the school said they support “Coach Devo.”
“Devo is a really great person. He didn’t do anything to the kids,” senior Alex Gasca, 18, said of the coach.
Freshman Fabian Cazares, 14, said he isn’t deterred by the allegations, and he hopes to one day play soccer on the school’s team.
“I’m going to try out next year,” he said.
Contributing: Dan Rozek, Rummana Hussain, Becky Schlikerman