Hard by A lake in rural northeastern Pennsylvania lies a wooded
enclave known as Camp Wayne for Girls. But last August, in the
dog days before the beginning of a new school year, the grounds
were brimming with testosterone. Sixty boys and five coaches from
Long Island's Mepham High football team had converged on the
property for the Pirates' annual preseason camp. They spent most
of their time on a practice field across from a ring of green
cabins, running through plays, determining who would be where on
the 2003 depth chart.
The members of the jayvee team--freshmen and a few
sophomores--expected to be the subject of hazing. It had all
but ossified into a Mepham football tradition: The
upperclassmen would initiate the new kids. One young player
might suffer the indignity of a shaved head, another a
conspicuous bruise, maybe an unlucky one would have body hair
ripped off with duct tape. It was understood that they would
endure their humiliation without complaint, and by the time
they returned home to Bellmore, a middle-class town of 16,000
in the heart of New York City's sprawling suburbia, they would
have standing as official members of the team. And besides,
they could take some comfort in knowing that someday they would
be the ones leading the initiation.
According to accounts provided by numerous sources with access to
firsthand testimony and to court documents made available to SI,
a senior tackle and a junior linebacker (whose names are being
withheld because they are minors) inaugurated their reign of
terror in cabin 13 during free time between practice sessions on
the afternoon of Aug. 23. As a third teammate helped out, the
6'2", 245-pound senior grabbed a jayvee player whom he outweighed
by nearly 100 pounds and sat on him. The hulking junior
linebacker then pulled down the player's shorts, dipped a
broomstick in Mineral Ice--an ointment that burns when applied to
sensitive skin--and forcibly sodomized him.
Other team members in the cabin cheered or looked on in horror
(or both), but no one broke the unwritten code by alerting coach
Kevin McElroy or any of his four assistants. In the days and
nights that followed, as their rampage went unchecked, the senior
and his junior cohort--the latter of whom would tell a
psychiatrist that he, too, had been hazed as a
freshman--sodomized two other jayvee players as well, adding pine
cones and golf balls as instruments in their repertoire of
December 22, 2003
In the end, there were as many as 10 attacks on the three
victims--one vicious enough to cause a witness to vomit--in
cabins 12 and 13. On two occasions the perpetrators forced a
jayvee player to sodomize another with the broomstick. On another
they made a victim suck on a golf ball that had been placed in
his teammate's rectum. At one point the junior linebacker placed
a banana near his crotch and forced one of the players to
simulate oral sex on the banana. Another jayvee player was then
made to eat the banana. On the third night of camp, two of the
underclassmen were given a choice: They could be sodomized or
they could approach an African-American teammate and berate him
with a series of racial epithets scripted by the upperclassmen.
They chose option B.
It wasn't until the four-hour bus ride home on Aug. 27 that
whispers about the horror began to amplify. As the bus barreled
down the highway, a freshman who had slept in cabin 10 sidled up
to one of the victims and asked if there was any truth to the
rumors. "Nah, don't worry about it," came a sheepish response.
When the team arrived back in Bellmore, no witnesses reported
what they had seen. Ashamed, embarrassed and threatened with
additional violence, none of the victims came forward either.
Last September, three weeks after the Mepham attacks, New York
Yankees rookies Hideki Matsui and Jose Contreras emerged from
their clubhouse in the Bronx to howls of laughter. In a scene
designed for maximum comedic effect, the Yankees' veterans
forced the rookies to parade in flamboyant women's clothing--a
leopard-print hat and coat for Matsui, a white fur coat and
purple pants for Contreras--in front of eager media from around
the world. Everyone got a good chuckle, to say nothing of a
picture and lighthearted write-up for the next day's papers.
For the Yankees and a host of other clubs, it's an annual rite
of passage, a way of humbling the millionaire newbies and
It's something else, too: hazing.
The practice is firmly entrenched in an American sports culture
that values tradition, team bonding, leadership hierarchies and
assertiveness. But what is hazing? As Hank Nuwer, an assistant
professor at Franklin College in Indiana who has written four
books on hazing, acknowledges, the term has a maddeningly broad
definition: Any activity expected of someone joining a group that
humiliates, degrades, abuses or endangers, regardless of the
person's willingness to participate. "It's almost like we need
different terms, like we have with manslaughter [and murder],"
Nuwer says. "Having someone put on silly clothes is called
hazing, and so is sodomy."
What starts out benign, Nuwer argues, can turn ugly in a
heartbeat. "It can escalate in a single year with a single
suggestion," he says. "The experts say, 'Look at the culture.
Once you have a hazing culture and some sort of risky behavior,
the chances are somebody's going to escalate it and something's
going to go wrong.' It would be really rare that the very first
time we do hazing we have something bad occur. It's usually a
pattern over some years."
When that pattern crosses the line, the effects can be
devastating. At the New Orleans Saints' 1998 training camp, two
dozen veterans escalated the usual hazing--in which rookies were
forced to sing college fight songs and get their heads shaved--by
herding five players, their heads covered with pillowcases,
through a gantlet of punches, pushes and wallops with coin-filled
bags. (Three rookies required medical treatment, including
defensive tackle Jeff Danish, who needed 13 stitches in his left
arm after crashing through a window; cut from the team a short
time later, Danish filed a lawsuit and reached an undisclosed
settlement with the Saints in '99.)
During the 1999-2000 season, the University of Vermont was rocked
by a hazing scandal in which a group of hockey players forced
eight freshmen and a walk-on goalie to take part in an "elephant
walk," parading around naked while holding each other's genitals;
to perform naked push-ups as their genitals dipped into beer, the
number of push-ups determining whether they would have to drink
from their own glass or someone else's; and to complete a
"pie-eating contest," gorging on seafood quiche covered with
ketchup and barbecue sauce until they vomited in a bucket. The
university canceled the remainder of the season after it found
that the perpetrators had tried to impede its investigation.
How widespread is hazing? According to a 1999 study conducted by
Alfred (N.Y.) University, 80% of the NCAA athletes it surveyed
said they had been subjected to some form of hazing at the
college level. Alarmingly, 42% of that group reported they had
also been hazed in high school. Most incidents go unreported,
owing to victims' fears of retribution and isolation for "ratting
out" their teammates, but some cases do become public. Last May
an annual powder-puff football tradition between junior and
senior girls from Glenbrook North High in suburban Chicago made
national news when a videotape surfaced of the seniors punching,
kicking and smearing a concoction of house paint, fish guts and
human feces on the juniors, sending five of them to the hospital.
High school provides a set of circumstances in which hazing can
be especially pernicious. For one, the hazers are almost always
juveniles, whose lack of maturity can easily lead to the
escalation of hazing rites. What's more, the fallout from hazing
can spread like a virus through the community. "If anything is
typical, it's how it divides the community," says Nuwer. "Hazing
isn't the worst problem in the world till it happens to you. Then
it's the worst problem you've ever had."
IT TOOK MORE than a week, but eventually the Mepham victims
could no longer conceal the injuries they had suffered at the
football camp. One player accompanied his parents to
Manhattan on Aug. 30 and was in so much pain that he couldn't
sit down. The following day he went to a Long Island hospital,
where doctors performed a surgical procedure to relieve his
discomfort. How, the doctors asked, had he come to suffer this
unusual wound? The victim responded evasively that it was "a
On Sept. 3, a full week after the team had returned to Bellmore,
another victim was also in immense pain, unable to stanch the
rectal bleeding that for days had soiled his sheets and
underwear. Humiliated and frightened, he asked his mother to take
him to the doctor. When his pediatrician asked about the source
of the injury, the victim finally relented, revealing some of the
details of the hellish five days he had spent at camp.
After collecting herself, the victim's mother frantically called
Mepham principal John Didden and later brought her son in to meet
with him. According to the victim's attorney, Robert Kelly,
Didden was dispassionate and advised the mother to call the
police herself. "From Day One," Kelly says, "the school tried to
bury this." (Didden's attorney, Christopher Clayton, confirms
that the principal advised the boy's mother to call the police,
but he denies the other allegations.) When the mother called the
police in Wayne County, Pa., the site of the attacks, she was
asked to leave a message and was told that someone would get back
to her. Exasperated and desperate, she placed a call to the
special victims unit in the Nassau County police department,
which serves Bellmore. Wayne Birdsall, a veteran member of the
unit, consulted with his Wayne County colleagues and interviewed
the victims soon afterward.
A 68-year-old public high school named for its first district
superintendent, W.C. Mepham High is tucked into a residential
area of Bellmore. The school routinely sends graduates to top
colleges, mints National Merit Scholars and was ranked No. 123 in
a 2002 Newsweek story rating the nation's top high schools. As it
does in any school, gossip travels the halls at warp speed, and
within days the corridors were buzzing with rumors of the horror
at Camp Wayne. Less than a week into the school year, the three
victims' identities were common knowledge. The cruel taunts and
nicknames--football fag, broomstick boy, butt pirate--came
The identities of the perpetrators were no secret, either. And
yet the two ringleaders cut confident figures as they roamed the
halls, eagerly anticipating the Pirates' first game on Sept. 20.
"It was totally backward," says Michael Rubin, an attorney for
two of the victims. "These guys--not my clients--should have been
the ones to be ostracized, but they were treated like kings of
the school." One of the victims was so upset that he stopped
attending Mepham and began homeschooling.
The two lead attackers were both starters with close-cropped hair
and ripped physiques. Otherwise, they form a study in contrasts.
The product of a broken home, the 16-year-old junior linebacker
is by most accounts a classic bully, a kid who thought nothing of
slamming classmates into locker banks for kicks. Sources confirm
that he had a history of disciplinary infractions and
The 17-year-old senior tackle, on the other hand, hails from a
family that was well-regarded in the community. A Boy Scout who
had attained the Life rank, he had his sights set on taking the
next step to Eagle with the support of his parents, who were
active in his troop. Arguably Mepham's best player, he stood a
good chance of landing a college football scholarship, and it
surprised no one that the coaches designated him "bunk leader"
for his cabin at camp. "He's the last guy you'd think would be
involved in something like this," says a rival player from
Calhoun High who has known the attacker since they were Pop
Warner teammates a decade ago.
As the hazing inquiry intensified and the severity of the acts
became more apparent, investigators from the criminal justice
system and the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District
confronted an impenetrable wall of silence. The victims had
spoken, albeit reluctantly, but no other players were willing to
provide firsthand accounts. Nuwer says this is typical behavior:
"Until you get to be about 25 years old, loyalty to the group is
more important than moral qualms. We're more likely to agree as a
group that we should turn on this victim than we are to confront
Administrators seeking answers grew increasingly frustrated. At
an emergency meeting on Sept. 16, Thomas Caramore, the district
superintendent, addressed the parents of the Mepham football
players. Citing the moral obligation of witnesses to report what
they had seen, he told the parents that the investigation had
stalled and urged them to have their sons come forward. Nobody
did. The following day the school board voted unanimously to
cancel Mepham's football season.
Even at the high school level, football is serious business in
most communities--and the decision to forfeit the season had a
direct impact on hundreds of people while giving rise to a new
group of victims. What had happened at Camp Wayne was abhorrent,
everyone agreed. But was canceling the season fair to the
upperclassmen who hoped to earn football scholarships and now
wouldn't be able to showcase their talents? What about the
cheerleaders and band members who would also be deprived? What
about the Homecoming dance and pep rallies, revered traditions
that would now be canceled? With all those factors swirling in
the air, angry football players walked out of classes in protest
on Sept. 18, the same day that the three attackers were suspended
Then, on Oct. 2, Wayne County district attorney Mark Zimmer
announced that he would charge the three alleged attackers with
an assortment of crimes, the most serious of them involuntary
deviate sexual intercourse, a first-degree felony. When Zimmer
announced four days later that he would seek to charge them as
adults, the development was overshadowed by another piece of
Mepham-related news: The 40-year-old father of the junior
attacker had died suddenly at his home. (The cause of death has
not been made public.) The boy's attorney, Mark Alter, speculated
at the time that the death had resulted from "the stress of the
By then the hazing story had been swept into the insatiable maw
of the media, and an army of satellite trucks and
notepad-wielding reporters had become fixtures on school
grounds. As the words Mepham and Bellmore became inextricably
tied to hazing and sodomy, the case morphed into a public
referendum on the entire community. Almost overnight, one of
the nation's most accomplished high schools was redefined by
the horrific acts of three students. "There's shame," says
Arnold Goldstein, an assistant superintendent for the district.
"There are three kids who did this, and there were kids who
were witnesses. And it was terrible. But there are 1,300 kids
in this school, and a lot of them have to assume the guilt
because people make horrible comments to them when they find
out they're from Mepham. And they didn't do anything wrong."
Although there was sympathy for the victims of the attacks, the
redirection of public support toward the community and the
school--and, in some precincts, the principal, the coaches and
the football team--inevitably shifted the focus of the story.
Parents and alumni distributed thousands of maroon-and-gray
buttons reading MEPHAM PRIDE IS ALIVE. Football team partisans
put up homemade leaflets on light posts, proclaiming support THE
Treating the media as the common enemy, the town closed ranks. In
late November an SI reporter was ordered to leave the property at
Luigi's Pizza, a Mepham High hangout, within seconds of
approaching a student. "I don't want you talking to them," a
store employee said. "When they're here, they're my kids."
With increasing regularity, public statements adopted the
construction, I'm sorry about the victims, but ... or stopped
referring to the rape victims altogether. And in a scenario that
was eerily similar to the aftermath of the attacks themselves,
those who violated the community's wall of silence faced their
own chilling threats of retaliation.
Consider the stories of Jim Rullo and Victor Reichstein. On Oct.
1 the mother of one victim asked Rullo, a family friend, to read
a statement at that night's school-board meeting. In an emotional
showdown between supporters and critics of principal Didden and
the coaches, Rullo stood before a packed 700-seat auditorium and
quoted both the mother ("My son is just as upset with the coaches
as with the perpetrators") and her son ("I kept thinking they
were coming to help me, but they never came"). For his part
Reichstein, the father of a jayvee football player who is a
friend of two of the victims, called for Didden and the five
coaches to be fired. "There are lots of splinter groups out there
right now," said Reichstein, who had told Didden of a threatening
run-in his son had had with the bullying junior attacker before
the Pennsylvania trip. "It's not about football at this point.
It's about doing the right thing."
Over the next week both Rullo and Reichstein received anonymous
letters in the mail, warning that they, too, would be sodomized
with broomsticks if they didn't adopt a posture of silence. "It's
simple," Rullo's letter read. "Keep your mouth shut and nothing
will happen to you or your family." Undaunted, they spoke out at
additional meetings and continued to field calls from the media.
In two follow-up letters to Rullo and Reichstein, the anonymous
warnings escalated to death threats. And on Halloween vandals
pelted Reichstein's house with eggs, doing $500 worth of damage.
"Reichstein and I are keeping the spotlight on this case because
it's unbelievable how our people are responding," Rullo said in
early November. "You think you all have the same values, but at
the November board meeting two thirds of the building was there
to support the coaches. They were flanked by the team, and behind
them faculty members, alumni and former football players." Added
Reichstein, "We never thought sports would be like this."
Though Rullo and Reichstein have been the most public faces in
the debate, they aren't alone. Last month six other families
joined the Reichsteins in forming the Bellmore-Merrick Parents
for Change, a group which now comprises 100 families, who are
calling for an independent state investigation into the school
district's handling of the case.
Regarded by some in Bellmore as grandstanding media hounds, Rullo
and Reichstein are viewed as heroes in other quarters. Last month
Rullo was honored for his courage by a local synagogue (even
though he's a Catholic). Likewise, Reichstein was stunned to get
a call of support from a childhood friend and another from troops
at an Army base in Germany. Even their detractors would have a
hard time denying the two men have had an impact. At a
contentious meeting, on Nov. 5, the board announced its intention
not to reappoint the football coaches next year, though two will
remain as tenured teachers.
There's an abiding irony to it all: A series of vicious acts,
intended to be shrouded in secrecy, suddenly became international
news, the prevailing code of silence an invitation for all manner
of fringe groups in our postmodern American circus to provide
their own interpretation of the narrative. That became absurdly
evident in October when eight members of a fanatical antigay sect
from Topeka, Kans., held a demonstration at Mepham because they
had somehow concluded that the attacks were provoked by the
community's permissive attitude toward homosexuality.
They were met by some 400 counterprotesters in a scene that
caused everyone involved to wonder how events had spiraled so far
out of control. Before long, real estate agents were voicing
concerns about the possible decline of property values. If you
were one of the Mepham students hanging out in the parking lot of
the local Stop & Shop on a gray Tuesday afternoon last month, the
whole thing made your head spin. "Just wearing your school
sweatshirt to parties with other schools, you see everybody
whispering," one freshman boy explained.
"You can't get away from it," said another, shaking his head. Had
he learned anything from the saga? "Yeah," he replied. "You learn
what three kids can do to a whole community."
For all the polarization and finger-pointing in Bellmore,
every group wrestled with the same fundamental question: How
had this happened? While everyone agreed that the
per-petrators bore responsibility for their actions, what
other factors had made it possible for this horror to visit
the community? "People want to believe it could have been
prevented," says Goldstein, the assistant district
superintendent. "They want an answer. They want to know who's
to blame. That's a natural thing."
Could it have been prevented? And who was to blame? There was no
shortage of candidates:
--The coaches Square-jawed and solemn, Kevin McElroy was supposed
to have started his 18th season as the Pirates' coach last fall.
While some of his teams had been outstanding and others
mediocre--the 2002 squad had a 4-4 record--McElroy inspired
reverence and loyalty among a legion of former players that
includes Pittsburgh Steelers running back Amos Zereoue (class of
'95), the program's most distinguished alum.
But McElroy's critics say the coach has always protected his star
players and didn't go far enough when dealing with their
objectionable conduct. To wit: At an optional conditioning
session last summer, the junior attacker allegedly directed a
series of epithets at a group of jayvee players that included
Reichstein's freshman son. The elder Reichstein says he
complained to McElroy, telling the coach, "My son doesn't need to
be called a c--------- or a faggot, and I want it stopped."
Reichstein says that McElroy vowed to speak to the linebacker and
apparently did, because afterward the upperclassman had a new
nickname for his son: Tattletale Boy.
Three days before the preseason camp the bully cut in front of
Reichstein's son at the practice field's drinking fountain. When
the freshman objected, his nemesis allegedly warned him, "Don't
even think about sleeping at camp." This time Reichstein alerted
principal Didden and pressured him to ban the junior linebacker
from the trip, explaining that he had already complained about
his behavior to the coach. Reichstein's wife also spoke to the
principal. They say Didden refused to ban him, responding, "I am
the principal. I decide who goes and who doesn't go on this
trip." (Didden's attorney says the principal made his decision
only after investigating the incident and concluding that
Reichstein's son pushed the junior linebacker first.) The family
further alleges that when their son, who was not one of the
attack victims, got off the bus at Camp Wayne, McElroy assigned
him to cabin 10, away from the bully's cabin, and added, "We'll
make it easy for you." Victor Reichstein considers the remark a
smoking gun: "He knew there was hazing. Maybe not to [the extent
of sodomy], but these kids knew they could get away with hazing."
(McElroy's attorney, Joseph S. Rosenthal, denies that McElroy
made the remark and says the boys' conflict had nothing to do
The investigation of the camp attacks has brought out evidence of
at least three other hazing victims--the attackers themselves.
Sources tell SI that at a November hearing to determine whether
the alleged Camp Wayne perpetrators should be tried as juveniles,
Long Island psychiatrist William Kaplan, testifying on behalf of
the junior linebacker, told the judge that the attacker himself
had been hazed as a freshman player at Mepham, though not to the
degree that took place in this case. (The attorneys for the
senior tackle and the third accomplice say their clients were
hazed as well.) Zereoue, too, confirmed to SI that in his day
players would "tape guys up, things like that."
Moreover, a former Mepham player named Wesley Berger says that
when he was a freshman in 1995, some upperclassmen initiated the
newbies by dunking their heads in a toilet and then flushing it.
Other freshmen, he recalls, had been given the same
treatment--so-called "swirlies"--but when it was Berger's turn,
he saw that the toilet was filled with urine and fought back.
After he informed the coach, he paid for his resistance. The next
week Berger was beaten by at least a half-dozen older players,
suffering cuts, a concussion and a cracked tooth. He filed a
lawsuit against the school district and received a small
settlement. "Basically," says Berger, now 23, "I broke the code
of silence, and so I got the s--- kicked out of me." (District
officials concede that Berger was assaulted by teammates but
claim it was an isolated act, not indicative of a pattern of
Though McElroy and the four Mepham assistant coaches declined to
comment for this story, their attorney, Rosenthal, denies that
the coaches knew of previous hazing at Mepham, maintains they did
nothing wrong in Pennsylvania and says they didn't learn of the
attacks until five days after the team had returned from camp.
According to Rosenthal, the players were supervised during
scrimmages and workouts and had to be in bed by 10 p.m., with
three nightly bed checks thereafter between 11 p.m. and midnight.
"Believe me," jayvee coach Art Canestro, a 1985 Mepham grad, told
Newsday, "if I had any indication something was wrong, I would
have been all over it."
Even after the school board announced on Nov. 5 that it would not
reappoint the coaches for the '04 season, the Mepham faculty was
vocal in its support of them. According to Newsday, biology
teacher Nicole Hollings read a statement on behalf of a group of
faculty members at that meeting, recommending that the coaches be
retained. "Something like this could have happened under the
supervision of any teacher, any club adviser, any supervisor, any
coach, any administrator in any school in any community in any
state across our country," she said, inciting outbursts of both
support and derision from the audience.
The board members, however, had made up their minds. "What parent
is going to feel comfortable sending their youngster out to play
ball when these were the people in charge?" says board member
Louis Kruh. "It's just common sense. It was their watch, they
should have watched out."
--The school or the district Should the same argument also apply
to principal Didden, even though he wasn't on the ground in
Pennsylvania? Should he have prevented the junior attacker from
traveling to the camp after being tipped off about his bullying
beforehand? The Reichsteins say yes. When news of the attacks got
out, Victor Reichstein says, "The first thing my wife and I said
was, 'We warned them.'"
Didden and superintendent Caramore declined SI's interview
requests, but assistant superintendent Goldstein staunchly
defends Didden's reaction to the water-fountain incident. "Of all
the accusations, that one has been the most destructive, that
somehow we knew and looked the other way," he says. "There was no
way on God's earth to look at that and say, 'You know what, that
kid might go sodomize some younger kids in camp.'"
District officials point out that Didden received a public letter
of support--signed by the principals of every Nassau County
public high school--affirming that they would have responded the
same way under the circumstances. The Bellmore-Merrick school
board appears to agree. Unlike the coaches, Didden continues to
receive the board's full backing and remains in his position as
Lawyers for the victims have already announced their intentions
to file what could be multimillion-dollar civil suits against the
school district, the principal, the coaches and the attackers,
though they don't rule out adding other defendants later. (A
grand jury in Wayne County is still investigating whether or not
to charge others in the camp attacks.) But hazing law can be
tricky, and a big judgment is by no means guaranteed.
For starters, the district says the players and their parents all
signed letters before the Pennsylvania trip that stated hazing
would not be tolerated and any offenders would be sent home. "We
had in place probably the same procedures as any other district
had," Goldstein says. "I look at it sort of like 9/11. Before
9/11 there were security procedures, but no one thought someone
would take a plane and fly it into a building. It was just out of
the realm of possibility."
Also, while it may appear that a pattern of hazing existed at
Mepham, administrators say they were unaware of it. "I've been
here eight years, and I have not received one complaint about
hazing," says Bellmore-Merrick athletic director Saul Lerner.
"And this is not a community that's shy about contacting me."
Now the district administrators find themselves in a tight spot,
saying, in effect, We'll do more to prevent future attacks, but
we shouldn't be liable for having failed to prevent this one.
Accepting responsibility for the crimes could cost the district
millions, but officials will gladly discuss the issue in the
future tense and have undertaken several new initiatives,
including a mandatory freshman seminar. "The educational theme is
about courage, because that's really what was lacking," says
Goldstein. "I understand why kids were reluctant to come forward.
Most adults don't act courageously. So we're focusing on, 'What
does it take to be a courageous person?'"
--The camps Some critics say it's no coincidence the attacks
happened while the team was at an overnight camp. From Colorado
to Rhode Island--in sports ranging from NFL football to high
school cheerleading--athletic hazing incidents resulting in
suspensions and criminal charges have occurred at preseason
Consider the circumstances: The athletes have been transported
from their homes to a secluded outpost; coaches constantly stress
the sanctity of team unity; and supervision is often lax. At Camp
Wayne, the coach-player ratio was 1 to 12, the coaches slept in a
separate cabin, and according to one victim's lawyer, they
routinely conducted only one bed check after 10 p.m. "You get a
Lord of the Flies mentality," says Douglas Fierberg, a
Washington, D.C., attorney specializing in hazing law. "The
environment is about bonding and power, and it's easy for things
to get out of control."
--Contemporary American culture Nuwer argues that recent trends in
entertainment--e.g., reality television--have had a dramatic
impact on the social mores that influence hazing. "The media
standards have changed in terms of embarrassing somebody," he
says. "We humiliate. We vote people off. Kids are very aware that
you laugh at these things."
Even forcible sodomy is a regular part of the public discussion.
It wasn't lost on anyone in Bellmore that the Mepham attacks bore
an unmistakable resemblance to the heavily publicized sodomy
(with a wooden plunger handle) by a New York City police officer
of Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, in 1997. Nor was Mepham the
first example of such brutality in the realm of athletic hazing.
In his research Nuwer has counted 11 cases of high school hazing
since '83 involving sodomy--but these, he stresses, are just the
ones that the media have reported.
Why do assailants sodomize their victims? And what kind of
message does it send? "When you see this kind of behavior in
prison, it's not just about sex. It's about power," says Daniel
Jay Sonkin, Ph.D., a Sausalito, Calif., therapist who specializes
in dealing with violent men and women. "Those boys may have felt
like they needed to humiliate their victims, and they chose the
most extreme method to do it. The purpose is to create
submission, so they'll live in such fear that they'll do whatever
the leaders want."
Of course, citing the influences of modern culture does little to
assuage the anger of a Mepham parent or community member still
waiting for someone in power to accept responsibility. Goldstein
says that while he understands that desire for accountability,
the reality is far more complicated. "People are looking for one
truth, but there isn't an absolute truth," he says. "It's like
the movie Rashomon, where everyone looks at things differently.
There are multiple truths in a situation like this."
NEARLY THREE MONTHS to the day after the first round of
assaults, the central fig-ures in the Mepham sexual-assault
case were reunited on Nov. 21 in rural Pennsylvania. In a
small, dimly lit room on the fourth floor of the Wayne County
Court-house, both ringleaders admitted to their roles in the
sodomies, turned to face their victims and apologized,
according to witnesses who were present at the two boys' closed
hearings, which were held separately. The plaintiffs and their
families stared back at the attackers and remained quiet
throughout the hourlong process, their churning emotions
betrayed only by the tears that welled in their eyes.
Once Wayne County judge Robert J. Conway had ruled on Nov. 12
that the perpetrators would be treated as juveniles rather than
as adults--a decision that, while consistent with state law,
infuriated the victims' families and large segments of the
Bellmore community--the judicial endgame had begun. That same
day, sources say, the third accomplice (who was 15 at the time of
the attacks but has since turned 16), admitted to one count of
aggravated assault as part of a plea deal in which he agreed to
testify against the other two. Now the ringleaders had also
pleaded guilty as juveniles, one admitting to six counts, and the
other to three, of involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, the
most serious charge they faced.
The attackers' apologies provided, at long last, a fleeting
glimpse into the psyches of the assailants. The would-be Eagle
Scout (who has since had his membership revoked) said he was
sorry, but his face remained a stoic mask, and his words rang
hollow to the victims' families. By contrast, his accomplice--the
classic bully--broke down and cried while saying he was sorry for
what he had done to the jayvee players. "I know it sounds silly,"
says Kelly, the attorney for two of the victims, "but [his
apology] meant something to the families."
Afterward, the two attackers were led outside in handcuffs and
were taken to separate undisclosed Pennsylvania facilities. (The
third attacker is at home under strict supervision.) They will
continue to be evaluated until at least Jan. 5 to help determine
the course of their rehabilitation. The victims and the
perpetrators will then present testimony and/or sworn statements
detailing how the crime has affected their lives at a disposition
hearing before Judge Conway, who will choose from one of three
options: probation, placement in a wilderness boot camp or
residency in a treatment center until no later than age 21.
Because they are being treated as juveniles, the perpetrators'
offenses will not appear on their adult criminal records.
The victims, of course, received a far harsher sentence, one that
has no specific release date, no provision to wipe clean their
record of those harrowing five days and their aftermath. Even now
the three young teenage boys endure a seemingly ceaseless wave of
humiliation on top of the one they absorbed at Camp Wayne. The
victim who had begun homeschooling returned to class after his
tormentors were suspended, but his father says he may yet send
him to another school come January. Another victim, fed up with
the "broomstick boy" catcalls of a classmate, was involved in an
off-campus fight that was broken up by police. Seeking a fresh
start, one of the victims transferred to nearby Calhoun High,
only to return to Mepham after learning his identity was known at
Calhoun, too. As recently as last week, one victim had to undergo
a surgical procedure for an injury suffered during the August
attacks. All three victims are currently in therapy. "[My son] is
confused about a lot of things, especially authority," says one
victim's father, noting that the preseason camp was his son's
first trip away from home. "He doesn't have any trust for
When the victims left the courthouse in Pennsylvania last month,
a phalanx of police officers shielded them from public view with
a tarp. One could make out only the shadows of slouching
physiques and six small shoes poking out from the bottom of the
canvas. There was no Mepham Pride to be seen here.
Yet in a tragedy defined by cowardly acts--by bullies torturing
small kids, by witnesses failing to stop or report the violence,
by authority figures shirking responsibility--the three victims
soldier on, drawing support from family and friends, sucking in a
deep breath each morning as they walk through the doors of Mepham
High. The families have no delusions about why that courage is
required, for they know the demons that will haunt their boys in
the years and decades to come. What began as a sports initiation
rite, a horribly twisted "bonding experience," has devastated
three young lives. "My son went to that camp in one piece," says
one victim's father, "and he came back in a million."
Didden continues to receive the full support of the school board,
but one father has CALLED FOR HIS FIRING, saying the principal
was warned of danger at the camp and did nothing.
Coach McElroy's critics say he has always PROTECTED HIS STAR
PLAYERS. His supporters say that what happened at Camp Wayne
could have happened under any coach or teacher in the country.
Asked if he had learned anything from the hazing scandal at his
school, one Mepham student outside the Stop & Shop said, "Yeah,
you learn what THREE KIDS CAN DO TO A WHOLE COMMUNITY."
Zimmer, the district attorney, wanted to try the attackers as
adults, but in a decision that INFURIATED THE VICTIMS' FAMILIES,
the judge ruled instead that they would be tried as juveniles.
Berger gives credence to the notion that hazing is an ESTABLISHED
TRADITION AT MEPHAM. He was harassed in '95 and badly beaten for