On a crisp autumn night, hundreds packed a school auditorium, but not for a pep rally, for Mepham High School’s football season was canceled before it even began.
Instead, the gathering was a tense school board meeting to deal with a scandal that has rocked this Long Island community: Three varsity football players have been accused of sodomizing three freshmen teammates during a hazing at a preseason training camp in August.
The community’s anguish surfaced at a recent meeting as parents, students and faculty in the working-class district argued over whether coaches or administrators should be fired, lamented the season’s cancellation and expressed sympathy for the alleged victims.
The tumult had been building for weeks. In an interview, Todd Frenchman, whose son plays on the team, criticized the cancellation, saying, “They made the entire team guilty by association.”
He also accused school administrators of being slow to discipline the accused attackers, who were not suspended until nearly two weeks after classes began.
“They were walking around, either physically or verbally intimidating” younger players, he said.
The charges are the latest -- and, if proved, among the worst -- in a string of hazing episodes nationwide. College fraternities have borne the brunt of criticism, but hazing has also been seen at the high school level.
One of the most notorious cases took place in May, when 16 students at Glenbrook North High in Northbrook, Ill., were videotaped pummeling younger girls and dumping urine, paint and animal entrails on them.
At Mepham, three players were charged on Thursday with sexually brutalizing younger teammates with a stick, pine cones and golf balls while at a Pennsylvania training camp. The three alleged victims initially kept quiet, but their silence ended when one needed medical attention.
Hank Nuwer, who teaches at Franklin College in Franklin, Ind., and has written a number of books about high school hazing, said the Mepham case falls at “the top end” in severity among hazing reports nationwide.
He estimated there have been a half dozen cases of sexual abuse of high school hazing victims over the past 20 years.
School officials at Mepham voted last month to cancel the entire eight-game season after the allegations came to light.
Coach Kevin McElroy, who maintains neither he nor his assistants knew of the accusations until five days after returning from camp, said he recommended the cancellation after learning that most of his players knew what happened but kept quiet.
“There’s a responsibility to report it, at the very least to the coaching staff, and do the right thing,” McElroy said of his players.
The Wayne County, Pa., district attorney, who is prosecuting the case, has complained that witnesses have been slow to report what happened.
Mike Nakkula, a professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, said he was not surprised some were reluctant to come forward. For anyone, especially teenage boys, admitting involvement in anything of a sexual nature is “both embarrassing and humiliating,” he said.
More than 700 people attended the board meeting, many of them holding signs and wearing team buttons boasting “Mepham Pride is Still Alive.”
One student expressed optimism the stigma would not be permanent.
“I think that our school really is a great place and really does have some great people and that we are going to bring our school back to the level we know it can be at,” Brooke Seligson said.
McElroy, head coach at Mepham for 17 years, has received support from former players, including one of his most successful graduates.
“He’s getting a bad rap,” said Amos Zereoue, now a running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers. “If you know the type of coach he is, he’s the last guy that would tolerate something like that.”
But Jim Rullo, a friend of the families of the three alleged victims, read a letter written by a mother of one of the boys.
“My son is just as upset with the coaches as he is with the perpetrators,” it read. “He now says to me, ‘I will never trust anyone again. Teachers, principals or coaches, they did not come to help me. I kept thinking they were coming to help me and they never came.”’