On Jan. 15, Judge Jeffrey Warnick found 37-year-old Michael Divincenzo, former soccer coach from Maine West High School, not guilty of misdemeanor battery, hazing and failing to report abuse. If he was found guilty he would have faced up to a year in prison. Divincenzo faced misdemeanor charges for his complacency in the brutal sexual and physical assaults of at least five student athletes as part of hazing rituals at the Des Plaines public high school in 2012. Antonio Romanucci is a lead attorney for the victims and a prosecutor in the civil lawsuit and he spoke to EXTRA about the details of the case that have not been publicized by the media.
EXTRA: Can you give us a background in hazing? Can it happen to anybody?
Antonio Romanucci: Hazing can happen to anyone who is vulnerable and weak. Typically it happens where there is more than one individuals involved.
How can parents identify if the child is being hazed?
It is not very easy to spot. What they have to pay attention to are any changes in sleeping habits, change in personality, withdrawal, not speaking or talking as much and crying. Further investigation needs to be completed.
What can you tell us from the victims’ perspectives?
In this case, it’s not even a haze anymore. It is a sexual assault. These children were sodomized. Part of the hazing ritual was sodomy on the soccer field. Why are some children defending it? Those are the children who were directed by the coach to perform the hazing. None of the victims are considering the coach to be a fun one or to be a motivator. All of the victims are psychologically, emotionally and physically hurt.
How long has this been going on before someone brought it to the surface?
We were able to go back to May of 2008 when the first documented incident was occurring. We know of at least close to four and a half years.
What should the school have done to prevent it?
The school had an anti- hazing policy but it wasn’t policed. Nothing was done to ensure that it didn’t happen. In the hazing incident from May 2008, the mother reported it to the principal in August 2008 and the principal did nothing but suspend the players who were involved in playing baseball for one game. The principal was notified that the student was being sexually assaulted and the principal and the superintendent didn’t do anything. As a result of the continued hazing her son was receiving, the mother asked the school to transfer her son out of the school and they did. The school is to blame here too, not just the coaches because if the school had done something when they were first notified four and a half years ago, all of the other acts may not have occurred.
What are your hopes for the outcomes of this case?
Sen. Kotowski reenacted a hazing bill, which made it a crime for an educator to fail to report hazing. If that had occurred today, the coaches and the superintendents would have been charged with hazing themselves because they knew about it. This law was passed in August 2013. I hope more states follow this sort of leadership and example.
Why do you think the coach was acting in an “inappropriate manner”?
What came out during the testimony is that the coach, after being fired, would take unauthorized camping trips with his players to Wisconsin and have hot tub parties. He would visit the graduated players in their dorms. We can’t say what was going on in the coach’s mind but clearly he was attempting to endear himself in a manner not appropriate for a high school coach and educator.
What advice can you give to parents?
Parents should always be asking questions. Don’t stop asking questions.
What would you say to school administrators who are letting this slide in other schools?
What I say to educators who don’t stop hazing is that you are not doing your job. Educating is not only learning how to read. It’s a holistic process. Parents send children to school for that process.