When explosive allegations surfaced in the fall of 2012 that Maine West High School soccer players had assaulted younger athletes as part of a hazing ritual, few could have predicted how long the aftershocks would be and how far they would be felt.
Students were kicked off the team and several sent to juvenile court. Two coaches were dismissed and one ultimately charged with criminal acts. Families of five students filed civil lawsuits against the district. School systems around the region were prompted to reconsider their anti-hazing procedures, and the Maine district hired a former prosecutor to do an internal investigation.
Gov. Pat Quinn signed a new anti-hazing law. And national media outlets took note, some calling Maine West's case emblematic of how generations-old hazing rituals had grown more brutal and sexual in nature.
But Wednesday, a judge swiftly cleared former coach Michael Divincenzo of all charges in the case and said he had not been required by law to report the alleged incidents.
That outcome, observers say, could leave parents and educators with more questions about how hazing is defined, when it becomes a crime and what role coaches and other adults have in preventing and reporting it.
“This is a subject that school districts ask for help in dealing with,” said Heidi Katz, partner at a Chicago law firm that specializes in education law. “The whole series of events at Maine West have probably heightened attention to this.”
Divincenzo was found not guilty of hazing, battery and failure to report abuse, all misdemeanors, in connection with the allegations that older students allegedly pulled down the pants of younger players and poked them with hands and other objects, according to a police report.
The court ruling, which came after defense attorneys spent about two minutes putting on their case, was condemned by anti-hazing activists.
“The overriding concern is the message it sends to the students and players over whether the behavior was acceptable,” said Elliot Hopkins, director of educational services for the National Federation of State High School Associations.
“The fact remains, a coach is always responsible for what the minors under his charge are doing,” he said, noting that sexual assault was alleged in this case, though no student or adult has been convicted of any crime in connection to it.
“That is a serious charge. … We are very concerned and disappointed in the judge's verdict,” Hopkins said.
Pam Champion, whose son Robert died in 2011 after a notorious hazing ritual aboard a Florida college charter bus, called Wednesday's verdict “yet another tragedy.”
“A strong message needs to be sent that we have zero tolerance for this,” she said. “Any time people come forward and bring it to the forefront and nothing is done, the only thing that does is make people not come forward.”
Others said that, if nothing else, the case brought needed attention to the persistent problem of hazing rituals on youth sports teams and in schools.
“Despite the outcome, it is my hope that this case will help to ensure that any student at Maine West or any other school will be protected from any potential harm or humiliation caused by the illegal and reckless act of hazing,” Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez said in a statement after the verdict.
“And equally important ... we have raised awareness of the legal and ethical obligations that educators and coaches have to protect their students from this objectionable conduct,” Alvarez said.
Alvarez had held a news conference in May to announce the charges against Divincenzo at the same time her office dropped juvenile criminal proceedings against six Maine West soccer players. At the time, she alleged Divincenzo was responsible for the care of the children but allowed and encouraged the mistreatment.
The lawyer for Divincenzo, who still faces a pending civil lawsuit, called the allegations “exaggerated to the point of disbelief.”
“It is obvious that some of the soccer players' conduct was bad, and that is unfortunate,” defense lawyer Thomas Breen said. “However, Coach Divo had nothing whatsoever to do with that bad conduct, which was done outside of his sight. The problem in a criminal case ... is that even after an acquittal it is almost impossible to get your reputation back, and Coach Divo had a wonderful reputation in the community.”
The civil lawsuit, which names Maine Township High School District 207, the Maine West principal, Divincenzo and another former coach as defendants, claims that soccer coaches and school officials allowed a culture of hazing that led to younger players being sexually assaulted and beaten by older teammates.
The lead attorney for the lawsuit could not be reached for comment.
Legal experts say Wednesday's decision in the criminal case would likely have little impact on the civil proceedings, in which the burden of proof is significantly lower.
“The burden of proof makes a huge difference,” DePaul University law professor Susan Bandes said. “The fact that someone lost a criminal case should definitely not be taken as a sign they're going to lose a civil case.”
Wednesday's ruling dealt strictly with criminal charges against the former coach.
Cook County Circuit Court Judge Jeffrey Warnick said he had reviewed testimony from 15 witnesses and read attorney briefs before handing down his decision. He said his ruling was based in “a question of law, not fact.”
He found Divincenzo not guilty of failure to report abuse because state law does not require him to report himself for wrongdoing, Warnick said. Child abuse laws do not apply to acts committed by students upon other students, he said.
Illinois Department of Children and Family Services officials disagreed with the judge's interpretation, saying state law requires school employees to report suspected incidents of child abuse to the agency “regardless of the perpetrator,” spokeswoman Karen Hawkins said.
The differing interpretations highlight the challenges faced by school officials tasked with adopting policies designed to prevent hazing and bullying among students.
Most school districts, including District 207, have policies on the books created to prevent hazing and bullying among students, Katz said. Those policies typically aim to ensure students have avenues to report hazing and that administrators take those reports seriously.
The legislation Quinn signed into law last year — in part because of the Maine West allegations — seeks to clarify the responsibilities for reporting hazing-related crimes. The law considers it a Class B misdemeanor when a school official fails to report hazing to educational authorities if it causes “bodily harm to any person.”
At Divincenzo's trial, players testified about the abuse they said they endured from older peers.
But the judge also noted that no one testified that the coach knew what was happening.
“Make no mistake about this ... this was an ambush,” Warnick said of the alleged hazing. “This was not OK. It was not horseplay. It was wrong.”
In presenting Divincenzo's brief defense, attorney Todd Pugh pointed to text messages sent between Divincenzo and another coach about the alleged hazing in which Divincenzo writes that “it won't happen again.” After that, the defense rested and the judge announced his not-guilty verdict.
For Divincenzo, the repercussions of the case will likely be long-lasting, despite his acquittal. He lost his job as a result of the allegations after agreeing not to fight his dismissal — in part because the district agreed to pay for his legal defense in the civil lawsuit.
After the verdict, he gave an emotional statement sharing his relief and thanking his attorneys. He said he would take a couple of weeks to regroup and figure out what to do next.
“It's been very hard, and I just really appreciate I have such great people behind me,” he said. “... I just try to get through today and talk to my family and friends and think about the future at another point.”
Freelance reporter Brian L. Cox contributed.