The Maine Township High School District 207 school board Wednesday night voted to dismiss head boys varsity soccer coach Michael Divincenzo after recent hazing scandals at Maine West High School.
Divincenzo has 17 days after receiving his dismissal papers to request a hearing before a hearing officer selected through the Illinois State Board of Education, a process that could take up to a year to be completed. In the meantime, he would be suspended without pay.
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School board President Sean Sullivan said the board will be considering disciplinary action against other Maine West staff members.
"The board believes Mr. D Divincenzo violated District 207 Board of Education policy and professional expectations by failing to adequately prevent, recognize, report and punish student hazing," Sullivan said, reading a statement from the board.
But he said later from the statement: "In taking this action to dismiss Mr. Divincenzo, it is important to recognize that the school board is not conceding the accuracy of the allegations made in the lawsuit now pending against the district over the hazing controversy."
The school board deliberated in closed session about three hours while dozens of former and current Maine West High School soccer players patiently waited for it to decide the fate of Divincenzo and freshman soccer coach Emilio Rodriguez. Earlier the students spoke passionately before the board in defense of Divincenzo.
Divincenzo and Rodriguez were banned from school premises and relieved of their coaching duties while officials investigate two reports of hazing from September. Two 14-year-old freshman members of the varsity boys soccer team claim they were sexually assaulted inside the school on Sept. 26 as part of a hazing ritual, according to police. Five juveniles were subsequently charged with misdemeanor battery, and a sixth juvenile was charged after police uncovered evidence of another attack that they say occurred during a summer soccer camp.
Four individuals have filed lawsuits against District 207, Maine West, its administrators, coaches and staff. They include the two boys in the September case, as well as a 2007 freshman member of the varsity soccer team and a 2008 freshman baseball player who also say they were assaulted.
Antonio Romanucci, the attorney representing the families of the four victims, was present during the public comment portion of the meeting, though he did not speak on behalf of the victims. "They can't come here and speak publicly about their experiences. I'm here to not only represent them but listen for them," he said.
Romanucci earlier had called for action not only against the coaches who were involved but also the high school's principal, Audrey Haugan.
Police reports indicate that freshman boys were routinely pinned down, roughed up, beaten and violated as part of the initiation into the soccer team. The lawsuit alleges that coaches sanctioned the hazing practices.
Emotions ran high as, one by one, students voiced their support for coaches "Divo" and Rodriguez.
"In high school, I wasn't the best student," said Joey Ruffolo, 22, who graduated from Maine West in 2008. "Divo pushed me to get my grades up so I can be eligible to play. Our biggest thing in high school was our soccer team. They made us a family."
Ruffolo said Divincenzo emphasized unity among team members and credited him for completely changing Maine West's soccer program from the day he started coaching.
"Under those coaches, we have gotten soccer game attendance much higher than previous years," Ruffolo said. "These coaches made a big impact on our lives and that's why we are here."
Maine West alum Alex Esquivel said Divincenzo always stressed respect on and off the field and recalled an incident when he scolded a senior player for teasing freshman players with name-calling.
"He was doing this to make that particular boy a man," Esquivel said. "He treated every person as an equal. I can assure you that in some way or another he has impacted each and every one of our lives in this room today."
Esquivel said the school board shouldn't get carried away and take action against the coaches based on allegations.
"Boys will be boys. This kind of situation should not be tolerated," he said, adding, "Firing these teachers is not going to solve the problem."
Meanwhile, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services has asked the Cook County state's attorney's office to determine if school officials had met their legal duty to report abuse to DCFS in past cases. DCFS was promptly notified in the latest case, school officials have said.
Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez has ordered a "complete top-to-bottom review" of the hazing allegations at Maine West High School both recent and in years past.