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Article updated: 5/16/2013 5:21 AM

Former Maine West coach charged in hazing; juvenile charges dropped

By Madhu Krishnamurthy

After a five-month investigation of allegations of hazing at Maine West High School in Des Plaines, the Cook County state's attorney's office Wednesday charged former Maine West High School head varsity soccer coach Michael Divincenzo, while dropping charges against six juveniles.

Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez said in a news conference Divincenzo, 37, of Elk Grove Village, is charged with one count of hazing, three counts of battery and four counts of failure to report abuse as mandated by state law in his capacity as a teacher and coach.

The charges are based on incidents that occurred between June 1 and Sept. 26 of last year, when four male soccer players were subjected to bullying, hazing and batteries committed by other student-athletes on the team, Alvarez said.

She said the families of the victims didn't want to pursue charges against the students, and the coach was the one to blame for what happened. Referring to Divincenzo as "the adult in the room," she said: "He allowed these things to happen and encouraged it. These kids were doing something that they, quite frankly, thought was being sanctioned by their coach."

Alvarez said the investigation went back to include allegations of hazing in the 2007-08 school year. There wasn't enough evidence to file charges involving those allegations, she said.

"We interviewed over 100 people to see whether or not there were other victims and other incidents," she said. "At this point, we are not aware of any other offenders."

While the investigation has been concluded, Alvarez said her office will continue to investigate if new evidence comes to light.

All the charges against Divincenzo are misdemeanors with a penalty that could range from supervised probation to one year in prison, if there is a conviction. His next court date is June 3.

The state's attorney's review stemmed from allegations by two 14-year-old freshman members of the varsity boys soccer team who said they were sexually assaulted by seniors inside the school last September as part of a hazing ritual, according to police.

In the months that followed, six juveniles were charged with misdemeanor battery, charges that have now been dropped. A lawsuit alleging instances of hazing of a freshman baseball and three freshman soccer players dating back to 2007 was filed against Maine Township High School District 207, the school's principal, and soccer coaches Divincenzo and Emilio Rodriguez, both of whom were initially suspended without pay last fall and then fired earlier this school year.

The lawsuit alleged the coaches were complicit and sanctioned the hazing culture at the school.

Antonio M. Romanucci, the plaintiffs' attorney, said in an emailed statement Wednesday that charges against Divincenzo aren't enough to satisfy the victims' families.

"The fact that coach Divincenzo has been criminally charged brings no joy to the families whose children were brutally sexually abused while educators stood idly by allowing it to happen," Romanucci said. "It does, however, bring vindication and relief to all those involved that justice is being served and there will be accountability."

The mother of a baseball player who says he was hazed in 2008 and who is part of the lawsuit said later Wednesday: "There is a relief in the fact that Divo is being brought to accountability for his actions. It's a step in the right direction. Hopefully the process will continue."

She appeared in disguise at a news conference held at Romanucci's office. She said she was remaining anonymous to protect her family.

Maine Township High School District 207 released a statement Wednesday saying the district notified and cooperated fully with all appropriate agencies, including the state's attorney's office, law enforcement, the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, and the Illinois State Board of Education once hazing allegations surfaced Sept. 28.

The district earlier released a statement from an independent investigator it hired on the hazing allegations at Maine West, which concluded that District 207 staff members responded appropriately when hazing was reported last fall. It didn't address the lawsuit's allegations regarding how earlier reports of hazing were handled.

A report from the law firm Hinshaw & Culbertson LLP was provided to the school board but has not been released to the public because of pending civil litigation, an ongoing criminal investigation and employee termination proceedings, officials have said.

The report from the law firm stated that the board of education should consider expanding the hazing action plan beyond athletics and other extracurricular activities to include the entire school environment. It also recommended that policy statements in documents should be updated to more thoroughly define bullying, harassment and hazing.

"The district has implemented several previously described actions to prevent hazing and continue to provide a positive and safe learning environment for all students," Wednesday's statement read. "The board of education will be carefully considering for implementation the independent investigator's additional recommendations in this regard."

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