Recently obtained reports reveal some frustration among police investigators over roadblocks and delays on the part of the school district during the investigation into alleged hazing among members of the Brunswick High School football team in August.

According to the report, on Sept. 29, lead investigator and school resource officer Det. Chris Balestra submitted a subpoena requesting video footage of the incident. That Friday, the school district requested a 14-day extension, advising they would first have to notify students and parents involved.

“During the week of 10/07/2021 it became clear that the school department had no intention on turning over the items requested in the subpoena in a timely manner,” wrote Balestra in the report. “And the decision was made to begin my own investigation into the alleged incident at Thomas Point Beach.”

Later in the report, after detailing the accounts of six student-athletes affected by the hazing, Balestra wrote that “it is the investigator’s opinion that the tactics used by the school department in their own investigation prevented me from being able to speak to more involved parties as parents of the juveniles did not want their children repeatedly interviewed.”

The reported hazing occurred at a team retreat at Thomas Point Beach in Brunswick on Aug. 16. Following the school’s investigation with an outside attorney, several players were removed from the team, a longtime football coach was fired and the remainder of the 2021 football season was canceled.

A separate police investigation into the matter, which occurred during roughly the same timeframe, yielded no criminal charges. The Times Record obtained a redacted version of Balestra’s police report this week.

The Brunswick High football team walks to the field Friday evening before its game at Skowhegan. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

In an interview Tuesday, Brunswick School Department Superintendent Phil Potenziano said the school administration worked well with the police. Potenziano said that in no way did school officials intentionally slow down a police investigation, and the school was following legal protocols outlined in the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

“I can’t speculate of why he’s saying there’s ‘no intention,’ but what I can tell you is that we were navigating the privacy rights of numerous students and staff, and that information is sensitive to the fact that we need to follow the protocol that’s in place for when we release information to the police,” Potenziano said.

No legal repercussions

The police report describes complaints that senior members on the football team had allegedly targeted freshman players and hit them with a sex toy. None of the student-athletes interviewed in the report wished to press charges.

“There was also word on a few occasions” that the aforementioned object was “reportedly forced into the mouths of several freshmen while they were being held down,” the report states.

Legal decisions were made alongside the Cumberland County district attorney, according to Brunswick Chief of Police Scott Stewart. Stewart said the reported incident didn’t constitute sexual assault under Maine law, despite the object being an adult sex toy. Sexual assault is not defined by the object used, he said, but instead, the parts of the body that are impacted, Stewart said.

The incident would fall under offensive simple assault – a charge that requires a party being willing to press charges because “it’s offensive physical contact and if they’re not offended by the contact, then it’s not an element of the crime,” said Stewart.

The line for where criminal charges should be filed regardless of whether a victim wants them depends on the level of reckless conduct, which is defined under Maine law as an act that “creates a substantial risk of serious bodily injury to another person.”

“Let’s take this same scenario that happens back this summer, if instead that adult sex toy — it was a knife,” said Stewart. “That would be different.”

Potenziano declined to specify on Tuesday what specific disciplinary action was taken by the school department and how many team members perpetrated the hazing, although he said there was more than one.

The police report states that the Brunswick High School principal was scheduled to meet with six senior football players and their parents on Sept. 27 to inform them that they were suspended from the football team for the remainder of the season.

‘I wasn’t bothered by it’

Hazing is designed to maintain a hierarchy and pecking-order or to discipline, according to Dr. Susan Lipkins, a New York-based psychologist and author specialized in hazing.

According to one athlete interviewed by police, the seniors’ tents were pitched on top of a hill during the retreat, with the remainder of the teammates stationed on a field below.

Of the six athletes impacted by the incident who were interviewed by police, at least three expressed indifference toward the situation.

“I wasn’t bothered by it because me and [redacted name] have been friends for a while,” one player said.

“No, I don’t, I don’t care. I think that honestly, I think that it was a funny joke,” said another, adding, “I think everyone’s just blowing it way bigger than it needs to be from the beginning.”

“Didn’t bother me because I’m not … I don’t really care,” said a third.

The crowd of Brunswick football players and parents a school board meeting in October. Members of the Brunswick High football community are voicing concerns about consequences and ridicule facing players who were not directly involved in the August hazing incident. C. Thacher Carter / The Times Record

Hazing involves power dynamics and is often cyclical, Lipkins said. Victims typically turn to bystanders who typically turn to perpetrators and as the years go on, the tradition can worsen. Sexualized hazing is increasingly common, especially among high school sports teams, Lipkins said. The reason, she argues, is to humiliate.

“By the school recognizing it as hazing,” said Lipkins, “that’s indicating that they have enough information to say that the seniors or that the perpetrators were doing unto others something that was physically or psychologically harmful or potentially harmful, and it’s irrelevant as to whether the victims perceive it like that because it is an abuse of their power or standing.”

Following the incident, the Brunswick school board and administration are reviewing policies. Students were offered counseling, Potenziano said, and athletes are signing an anti-hazing protocol along with other initiatives that are being launched within the athletic department.

Under Maine Principal Association rules, because the Brunswick football program forfeited the remainder of the 2021 season the team is currently prohibited from participating in the upcoming two seasons.

Brunswick High School Athletic Director Aaron Watson said in a school board meeting last week that a letter was filed to the MPA asking for a reinstatement of the upcoming seasons on Dec. 2.

An update regarding the appeal is expected in January.

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