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Agawam won’t cancel football game

School officials suspend eight in hazing incident

By Peter Schworm and John Guilfoil
Globe Staff / November 23, 2010

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AGAWAM — School officials decided yesterday against canceling the Thanksgiving Day football game as punishment for a hazing episode involving at least 10 team members, amid pressure to uphold the anticipated sporting tradition.

Four players and four coaches at Agawam High School, including head coach Mike Peterson, are suspended from the annual tilt against rival West Springfield. School Superintendent Mary A. Czajkowski also canceled a bonfire slated for tomorrow night.

At an afternoon press conference, Czajkowski declined to provide details about the incident, which took place in the locker room after practice last week and targeted seven younger players. But she said the conduct was more than horseplay.

“This was clearly a situation that went beyond what I call towel whipping,’’ she said, adding that no one was injured.

Czajkowski said she was “extremely disappointed with the actions of our students’’ and said she hoped the punishment would send a message that “this is not the kind of behavior that we want in our schools.’’

Peterson said he was choosing not to coach in the game and that he understood the incident was ultimately his responsibility.

He was not in the locker room when the incident occurred and said he regretted not being there to intervene.

“I don’t turn a blind eye to this type of behavior or actions,’’ he said, saying he was caught off guard by the incident. “I am obviously disappointed that this took place.’’

The prospect of Thanksgiving without the big game had upset many parents and alumni in Agawam and neighboring West Springfield, and the decision to let the teams play was a relief.

“It’s important not to punish the entire community and those kids who have not participated,’’ said Mayor Richard A. Cohen. “They deserve to play, and the game will go on.’’

Cohen and Czajkowski said they had received many calls from people urging them to allow the game to proceed as scheduled.

“I think that’s really critical for this community,’’ she said.

The incident was the latest in a series of hazing and bullying incidents that have drawn attention amid growing scrutiny of teenage harassment.

Earlier this month, members of the high school girls soccer team in Needham were suspended before a tournament game after allegedly hazing younger teammates, prompting a wide-ranging debate on when such activities cross the line from team bonding and risk upsetting students.

Parents of some of the suspended Needham students were so upset over the suspension that they asked a judge to lift the suspension and allow them to play, but the judge refused. Needham lost the game.

In Agawam, a town of around 28,000 in southwestern Massachusetts, a parent of one of the targeted students notified school officials, who contacted police.

State law prohibits hazing and defines it as any behavior that initiates a student into an organization and “willfully or recklessly’’ endangers their physical or mental health or causes “extreme mental stress.’’

Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said he spoke about the incident with Czajkowski three times and concluded that the behavior clearly amounted to hazing, although he would not provide details.

Scott praised her handling of the incident, saying she sent a message that hazing is unacceptable without calling off a cherished community event.

“This is about hazing and letting students know it won’t be tolerated,’’ he said. “It’s not about punishing everybody.’’

School officials need to investigate reports of hazing so it does not become more severe, he said.

“It’s intimidating, and it’s very hard for kids to come forward,’’ he said.

Peter Schworm can be reached at schworm@globe.com. John Guilfoil can be reached at jguilfoil@globe.com.