Parents of a former Essex High School student are suing the district for failing to protect their son from months of bullying, hazing and assault by a hockey teammate, court documents show.
A complaint filed in April 2017 and amended two months ago alleges negligence by school and district leaders who “knew or should have known” members of the hockey team targeted the victim during his freshman year. To protect the victim’s identity, The Reporter is withholding his and his parents’ names.
Court documents say the incidents occurred between November 2015 and February 2016 and ranged from verbal put-downs and unfair treatment to physical assaults and sexual harassment.
Administrators started an investigation that February after educators from another high school shared concerns about the team. But the complaint alleges the high school knew about the misconduct as early as December 2015 – when the victim spoke to a team captain – and says the district could have foreseen it given the boys hockey team’s history of inappropriate behavior.
The district denies any wrongdoing.
“The district is very confident that it acted appropriately in all respects,” school district attorney Pietro Lynn said. “It anticipates that the court will dismiss the claims raised against it.” He added the district plans to file for a summary judgment “at the appropriate time.”
The parents’ lawyer, Jerome F. O’Neill, declined to comment, saying he’d prefer the filings speak for themselves. O’Neill is the lead attorney on a strikingly similar lawsuit against the Milton School District filed by a victim in the hazing scandal there.
The Essex lawsuit names Union No. 46, its school board and the Chittenden Central Supervisory Union as defendants. Those three entities dissolved last July and are now governed by the Essex Westford School District.
A hearing June 25 will allow the two parties to debate whether the parents have a right to access certain school records sought in a pair of subpoenas, but arguments outlined in court records preview the discussion.
O’Neill says redactions to hundreds of school documents obtained in discovery make it impossible to further investigate or locate witnesses.
One subpoena seeks unredacted copies of educational records for all boys hockey players dating back to 2010, five years before the victim joined the team. It also seeks all statements or investigative reports related to the conduct of hockey players over that same period.
Lynn called that request “far outside” the scope of the complaint because it targets students with no relationship to the allegations.
In a motion to quash, Lynn said the earliest the victim’s teammates could have joined EHS was 2012, so any behavior prior to that is “wholly irrelevant.” Plus, he said, none of the 57 players from that timeframe engaged in misconduct.
O’Neill questions that conclusion. In court filings, he said proof of misconduct, regardless of when it occurred, would show if the school knew about “similar abusive behavior” and chose not to act. For example, he says, information obtained in discovery show players were reprimanded for “locker boxing,” a ritual in which players put on gloves and hockey pads and repeatedly punched each other.
Yet even without proof of prior incidents, O’Neill says the school was on actual notice of the victim’s mistreatment because he reported it to a team captain.
“The boys ice hockey team captains in effect were the eyes and ears of the coaches,” O’Neill writes.
Captains are held to a higher standard than regular players because they must attend a comprehensive leadership training program and sign a constitution each season detailing their duties, O’Neill notes.
He aims to emphasize that responsibility through his second subpoena, which asks for documents related to pre-season ice time, informal games and “captains’ practices.”
That will show pattern of EHS “using captains as its agents to accomplish that which it could not do on its own,” he writes, like scheduling practices before the Vermont Principals’ Association permitted the season to start.
Lynn disputed this claim, calling it a “novel argument.”
The second subpoena also asks for athletic records and recommendation letters that show the main perpetrator was one of the team’s star players. O’Neill believes those will show a jury why the school didn’t remove the player from the team: A successful season was more important.
The lawsuit doesn’t name the alleged perpetrator, nor does a March 2016 statement from the district’s lawyer confirming a student admitted to misconduct in violation of school policy.
But the high school’s investigation resulted in the suspension of one player – then-sophomore Alexander Giummo – whose 2015 championship-clinching goal against South Burlington is referenced in court filings.
Giummo outed himself as the accused when he sued the victim for defamation in 2016, claiming allegations were false and had harmed his reputation. He later withdrew the claim.
Though not parties to this lawsuit, Giummo and his parents have filed motions to quash the plaintiff’s subpoena through their attorney, Brooks McArthur. McArthur did not return a call for comment.
Giummo has not appeared on the EHS hockey roster for the last two seasons, and a personal website touting his academic and athletic achievements says he now attends a private prep school in Connecticut, where he plays on the hockey team.
More than a year of court documents are stuffed in two folders at the Chittenden Superior Court – Civil Division. Most are lengthy motions filled with legal posturing. But buried in that file are previously confidential documents that outline months of alleged mistreatment toward the victim.
One is a 14-page report from attorney Ellen Coogan, an investigator the high school retained to perform an independent review at the request of the victim’s parents.
Coogan based her report on interviews with the victim and his parents, principal Rob Reardon, athletic director Jeff Goodrich and a slew of documents, including an 865-page EHS investigative file.
Coogan’s report doesn’t name the victim or Giummo but concludes the sophomore indeed bullied, hazed, harassed and retaliated against the victim. Even so, she questioned whether her review was necessary: The school already found Giummo guilty of violating those same policies, she noted.
Though focused on the school’s response, Coogan detailed some of the allegations as reported by the victim: More than once, Giummo hit and punched the victim, leaving bruises on various parts of his body. He sometimes hit the victim in the genitals – which the players referred to as “sack tapping” – and urinated on him in the locker room shower, among other inappropriate behavior.
The report notes several other players characterized Giummo’s conduct as frequently “over the top.”
The victim told Coogan he thought enduring the abuse was just part of being on the team. But after a month, he texted a team captain and asked for help, court documents show.
The victim told the captain he didn’t think he was being hazed but that team sophomores constantly pestered him, taking his belongings or making him ride in the cargo area of a teammate’s SUV. Sometimes, he said, they would try to make him buy things and threatened to “break one of my bones” if he refused.
“I just can’t stand it,” the victim wrote on Dec. 11, 2017. “I know you may be able to help because your [sic] a captain.”
“Believe me, I’m trying to hold my own end,” he later said. “And I’m trying to get off the 4th line at the same time. It’s hard to do it with all the distractions.”
The captain agreed to talk with the other captains and the team’s coach. Coogan’s report says that conversation never happened, but the plaintiff’s filing questioned why EHS coach Bill O’Neil chose to “overlook” the abuse, effectively allowing it to continue.
“A successful 2015-16 boys ice hockey season was more important than suspending and removing players, especially a star player,” the filing reads.
In an interview with high school administrators, the victim said he never informed Coach O’Neil about the incidents because he didn’t want to “cause a fuss,” according to interview notes.
“I didn’t want [O’Neil] gone,” the victim said. “The captains should have acted more on taking care of this.”
O’Neil was placed on paid administrative leave during the investigation and remained off the bench as the Hornets advanced through the 2016 playoffs, eventually falling in the championship game to BFA-St. Albans.
He returned the following year for his 44th and final season with the team before retiring from coaching in May 2017. Reardon called O’Neil’s removal a “non-disciplinary action to protect the integrity of the investigation.”
He later issued a statement in late 2016 that said the longtime coach and his staff had conducted themselves “consistent with the guidelines and expectations” of the school and athletic department.
The victim confided in a South Burlington hockey player several months after texting the team captain. The allegations made their way to that school’s principal, Patrick Burke, who contacted AD Goodrich on Feb. 5, 2016.
Goodrich asked Guimmo about his behavior. The sophomore admitted he was “mean” and “a jerk” to the victim and said he would apologize and stop. Goodrich then spoke to the victim, who relayed some but not all the incidents, Coogan’s report said.
Based on those interviews, Goodrich and EHS administrators opened a hazing and bullying investigation, but expanded their inquiry twice – once after hearing some misconduct was of a sexual nature and again after learning Guimmo had contacted the victim and other teammates despite being told not to.
On February 19, high school investigators concluded Giummo had bullied the victim. They followed their disciplinary policy and continued to investigate the hazing, harassment and retaliation claims.
But the school suspended its investigation several days later at the request of the Chittenden Unit for Special Investigations, a countywide taskforce that investigates sexual crimes. CUSI took the case after local police fielded a complaint from someone not affiliated with the high school alleging Giummo had sexually assaulted the victim.
CUSI passed its investigation along to then-Chittenden County State’s Attorney TJ Donovan, who referred the case to family court. Since those proceedings are confidential, it’s unclear if Giummo faced any charges.
EHS resumed its investigation March 8 and conducted more than a dozen interviews over the next week before Reardon determined that Giummo violated the remaining school policies.
In letters to the victim’s parents, Reardon said he couldn’t discuss any specific disciplinary action. But he assured the school was taking “reasonable steps” to prevent future misconduct and to “remedy its effects” on their son.
The Coogan report shows that although the misconduct stopped once the investigation began, its impact on the victim did not.
During the investigation, the high school developed a safety plan for the victim. He was excused from his absences and some assignments he missed, and could leave class whenever the stress made it hard to concentrate.
The victim appeared happy to return to school, giving a guidance counselor a “thumbs up” when he arrived to the building, according to Coogan’s report. The next day, however, he heard an older student mutter that Giummo had done nothing to him.
Then-superintendent Judith DeNova wrote to the victim’s mother a week later. She apologized for his struggles in returning to school and vowed to accommodate his needs.
For the next week, the student gathered his assignments and worked in an office alone. Shortly after, he transferred to another school.
Coogan offered a few recommendations to the high school for future situations, including that it should post the entire hazing, harassment and bullying policies online and train coaches, staff and students on how to recognize such behavior.
She called the high school’s investigation “thorough and careful” and said administrators took reasonable steps to ensure the harassment did not continue. She also commended the high school’s efforts to support the victim.
Still, Coogan empathized with the victim’s situation, stating the investigation caused him “great deal of stress.”
“His experience was one that no student should have to endure,” she wrote. “[He] tried to manage the situation. He asked for help from one of the hockey team captains; help was not forthcoming.”
Editor’s note: A paragraph about “locker boxing” has been corrected to reflect the plaintiffs obtained information, not records, about the ritual through discovery