Brunswick fires football coach, cancels rest of season in wake of hazing investigation

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Oct. 6—The Brunswick School Department has canceled the rest of the high school football team's season and has fired long-time football coach Dan Cooper in the wake of its investigation into alleged hazing at a preseason team retreat.

Superintendent Phil Potenziano made the announcement in a letter to the community on Wednesday afternoon. He cited safety concerns about the number of players the football team would have available in his decision to cancel future games.

"I am writing with some regrettable news about our football season. I wanted first to inform you that Daniel Cooper is no longer affiliated with our athletic department," Potenziano wrote. "His departure, the removal of some players from the team, and the number of ineligible or injured players on the team have caused the administration and I to seriously evaluate our ability to safely field a team for the remainder of the season. After very careful deliberation, we have concluded that we cannot safely field a team and continue playing contests for the remaining three games of the season."

The incident took place at a preseason overnight team retreat Aug. 16-17 at Thomas Point Beach in Brunswick.

According to a heavily redacted copy of the report obtained by the Portland Press Herald, the investigation was launched after school officials were informed on Sept. 2 that during the retreat a football player was held down and a sex toy was put into his mouth. The report states that 36 of 39 rostered players were interviewed as part of the investigation, as were Cooper and other coaches. It also notes that texts, emails and other correspondence related to the events at the retreat were reviewed and four brief videos, recorded on students' phones, of the alleged incidents during the retreat were also obtained.

Most of the report, including all witness testimony and all findings and conclusions, were redacted. The school's investigation was conducted by its legal counsel, Allen L. Kropp of Portland law firm Drummond Woodsum.

One footnote stated that many players interviewed referenced "videos" as being taken during the retreat, viewed by players, and distributed to other Brunswick High students. "To this point, we have accessed four videos, one of which appears to have been widely distributed," the report stated.

Potenziano did not respond to questions, sent via voicemail and email, asking if the report concluded that hazing took place at the retreat or whether the incident constituted assault.

In an earlier email sent to the Press Herald, Potenziano said the extensive redactions were "in accordance with our legal obligations" and that "no further comment about the report will be made."

He also made this statement:

"Hazing is a ritual for becoming part of a group, and it is designed to cause another pain, embarrassment, or ridicule, so talking about the details of the report is not valuable. In fact, talking about the report can and will most likely cause further harm to the victims. The bottom line is that the School District has a zero-tolerance policy for hazing, bullying behavior, and harassment. By completing this investigation and taking the appropriate actions, we have demonstrated that."

The investigation report explained that its findings were assessed to determine if school department policies had been violated, specifically in regards to policies for harassment/sexual harassment; hazing; bullying and/or cyberbullying; and weapons, violence and school safety. The latter category includes language that says prohibited conduct includes "lewd, indecent or obscene acts or expressions of any kind."

School policy dictates that all employees must report suspected harassment of students or bullying. The bullying policy specifically mentions coaches are responsible for reporting suspected violations.

In his letter to the community, Potenziano wrote, "We understand that this decision will likely come as a blow to many of our student-athletes and their families, and we regret the circumstances that forced us into having to make this difficult decision. However, we must be guided by what is best for the safety and well-being of our students and the administration, and I believe that this is the right decision."

Potenziano also said there could be some opportunity for football players to gather for some practices, weight room use, and "light intrasquad scrimmages."

Any football related activity will be done without Dan Cooper, who was in his 17th season as Brunswick's varsity coach.

"I'm not ready to say much right now, the wound is still fresh and it hurts," Cooper said in a text. "I'm very saddened and disappointed with (Potenziano's) decision. More saddened that he's cancelled the season for the rest of the boys who were not involved."

Cooper, along with assistant coach Greg Nadeau, had been placed on non-disciplinary leave from the team on Sept. 24. That also was when Potenziano opted to cancel Brunswick's homecoming game that weekend.

Last week the team was allowed to resume practice, though an unspecified number of players were kicked off the team by Potenziano for the rest of the season. Last Friday, Brunswick played a game at Skowhegan, with 27 players dressed for the game and assistant coach Nate Brunette taking over as interim coach. Cooper was at that game and offered a pregame prayer to the team.

Neither Potenziano's letter nor the redacted investigation report mentioned Nadeau by name or referenced any further disciplinary action he could face. Nadeau is a physical education teacher at Brunswick High.

The Brunswick Police Department is conducting its own investigation of the alleged incident to determine if any laws were broken. Chief of Police Scott Stewart said for assault to rise to a criminal charge it needs to be offensive to the victim.

"It's at the early, early stages because we don't have the video yet. We were told today we would be getting a copy," Stewart said of the police investigation.

Last week Stewart said his department had received video and other evidence following a subpoena of the school. Stewart said Wednesday that at that time he was misinformed. Rather than having received evidentiary material, what his detective had meant was that the subpoena process had been initiated. The Brunswick Police has not yet received a copy (redacted or otherwise) of the school department's investigative report.

"We haven't seen what the school has seen yet but I'm told that we will have it," Stewart said.

Matt Barbour, the father of Brunswick football player, is angered that the school department canceled the rest of the season. His son, Gavin Barbour, is a junior captain on the team.

"My son worked his ass off as a junior to make a captain," Matt Barbour said. "And now he's a captain of a team that never even got to finish the season — and with zero fault of his own. Because it was five kids get kicked off, now we decide to kick the coach off.

"To be frank and honest here, I went to football camp when I was younger," he added. "We all know going to football camp that part of football camp is bonding, that some people might not like to see as bonding. Whether those some of things were taken to a level that was higher than maybe it should have been? Maybe. To think that, shy of extreme bodily harm, that something that happens at a football camp would result in what we're talking about right now seems way out of proportion.

"Certainly kids that got out of hand should have been punished, whether they should they have been punished with a simple suspension for a game or two versus what they did give them certainly could be up for debate."

While Matt Barbour cited five players who were removed from the team, the superintendent has not specified how many players were removed.

The school department has partnered with Sexual Assault Support Services of Midcoast Maine (SASSMM) to offer free, confidential support services to all students. Students can meet with an SASSMM advocate on Mondays (11 a.m.-1 p.m.) and Thursdays (9-11 a.m.). Any community member can call the organization's 24-hour helpline at 1-800-871-7741. In addition, Brunswick High school counselors are available during school hours with additional afternoon availability.

Central Maine Newspapers Sports Editor Bill Stewart contributed to this report.

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