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St. Paul's lacrosse scandal precipitates soul-searching

On the bus ride home from a scrimmage in Pennsylvania, the lacrosse players from St. Paul's School were feeling good. The Maryland team was already ranked among the best in the nation, and the season was about to begin.

The mood was light, conversation strayed from one subject to another until - these were high school boys - the talk turned to sex. Laughter broke out as one player recalled a scene from the movie "American Pie" in which a high school student films himself having sex with an unsuspecting girl and broadcasts it over the Internet. One team member claimed he knew of a similar incident at a Baltimore-area school.

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Wouldn't it be something, the talk on the bus went, if one of the players could videotape a girl having sex with him?

A week later, on March 23, one boy did just that. He secretly taped a 15-year-old girl having sex with him. Over the next several nights, members of the junior varsity and varsity teams watched the video.

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The result, of course, has been something the players never anticipated: outrage that led to cancellation of their season; disciplinary action that has left St. Paul's divided; and soul-searching among parents and children all over Baltimore about the role of athletics, wealth and status in high school.

Some people blame the "jock culture," pointing to the dismaying list of unsavory incidents involving athletes. Sports worship in America has so intensified, they say, that it has thrust even high school students into a realm of no-fault status. And lacrosse players in Maryland are widely seen as being at the top of that list.

"Unfortunately, there is a sense of entitlement with a lot of the kids who play in this league," says John Tucker, athletic director at Loyola High School. "It does hold a high social standing for them, which is a tremendous mistake. Lacrosse around here is such a big part of this prep school culture that a lot of times people who play the game are put in a special category in a lot of ways - rightly or wrongly and for better or for worse."

But he and others note other factors - greater freedom for adolescents and lax supervision - that can contribute to inappropriate behavior. Kids now have cars, cell phones, pagers and computers, isolating themselves from adult influences, Tucker says, and adults often oblige, permitting their children to attend co-ed sleepovers, all-night raves and parties where alcohol is served.

Mitch Whiteley, the St. Paul's lacrosse coach and assistant principal, believes that parents must be more vigilant and have much tougher conversations with their children about values and what's acceptable. The team members' actions, he says, demonstrate the perils of peer pressure and not foreseeing the consequences of their behavior.

"That self-absorption that is so prevalent on the part of adolescents really came into play here," he says. "There really wasn't much thinking beyond what they were doing and the immediate situation. I think that was the fatal flaw that brought down some very good kids."

The culture at large puts youngsters at risk. Kids watch television, and the Phil Donohue of their parents' younger days has been supplanted by Jerry Springer. References to sex that wouldn't have been spoken in familiar company 20 years ago are now routine even on prime-time television shows.

And movies revolve around sex as well, a la "American Pie," the main plot being the desperate attempts of a group of high school boys to lose their virginity.

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"Kids are looking for some of the same things kids were looking for 20 years ago, namely some sense that their lives are vibrant and meaningful and fun, which means testing some boundaries," said Richard Prodey, director of guidance and counseling at Loyola. "The problem is that the boundaries have gotten a lot wider.

"What kids used to do is have parties in the basement and get drunk, but they didn't destroy a house. They drove their cars over people's lawns, but they didn't bash through the front doors. They played pranks in schools - but they didn't shoot anybody."

For those involved in the St. Paul's incident, the lessons have been painful. The boy who made the tape was expelled, and nearly 30 kids were suspended. The Baltimore County state's attorney's office is investigating to see whether criminal charges should be brought against several students.

Only about eight members of the varsity lacrosse team were not present when the video was shown, including a couple of juniors who were counting on the season to help them land college scholarships. Because so few players did not participate, the school said it had no choice but to cancel the lacrosse season.

"We expected repercussions, but nothing like this," says Catherine DeVilliers, the mother of one of the team's seniors. "We're not minimizing what happened to this girl, but tears have been shed for everybody, these boys included. These are very good kids who made a very bad decision.

"Trust me," she adds, "Every coach in this town is on the ground kissing it, because it could have happened anywhere."

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The incident

About 800 students attend St. Paul's, a 64-acre campus in Brooklandville in Baltimore County. Perched high on a grassy hill, its focal point is a mansion built in 1793 by Charles Carroll, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. The separate St. Paul's School for Girls is down the hill.

Established in 1849, the boys' school is an institution thick with tradition, an elite college prep school where tuition runs $13,300 a year. Founded as an Episcopal school, it requires students to attend regular chapel services and says its mission is to "imbue each student with a self which distinguishes right from wrong."

Like other elite schools in Maryland, St. Paul's is fiercely competitive about lacrosse. It was ranked No. 1 in the country during the preseason, and in the current issue of Inside Lacrosse magazine, published before the sex scandal broke, the team is ranked No. 3.

On March 26, a Monday, the varsity team gathered at one player's home to watch a film of the St. Mary's team, the next day's opponent. Word of the sex video had leaked out after a small group of junior varsity players viewed it the previous Saturday.

"There were rumors about something else, about the tape being there, but we didn't know if it was true," says one of the suspended players. Like some parents interviewed for this article, he and other players spoke only if they would not be identified. They cited fears of being ostracized by peers and teachers on campus.

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The girl on the video was from another Baltimore-area private school. Some of the lacrosse players knew who she was because the boy involved had dated her. Nobody stopped the video, and nobody left the room as it was shown.

Some students said that they had a sense what was going on was wrong, but that it didn't really hit them until after they left the house. One boy, according to his mother, e-mailed the girl to warn her what had happened. "He felt terrible for the girl, and he knew that they could all get in trouble for it," the mother says.

Another player's mother believes it is unrealistic to expect a high school boy to have put a stop to the screening of the video. "How many out of them, that age, are going to stand up with that peer pressure going and say, 'Turn it off'?" she asks.

The answer should have been all of them, according to Deborah Roffman, a sex-education teacher at the private Park School. "There are different levels of right and wrong, and this was clearly wrong," she says. But she adds there is enough blame to go around.

She points out that all kinds of studies show kids are bombarded with sexual references, with a steep increase in the number on television over the past 10 years or so. A sex joke on television isn't going to make someone a rapist, she says, but the saturation of sex - without the context of how powerful it can be - can only desensitize kids to the point that an incident like the one at St. Paul's becomes possible.

"I don't know why we would be surprised," she says. "What are we doing as a culture to help kids develop healthy sexual attitudes? Not much."

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The punishment

St. Paul's headmaster Robert W. Hallett and lacrosse coach Mitch Whiteley learned of the Monday night video viewing from administrators at two other private high schools two days after the varsity team viewed it, said St. Paul's spokeswoman Claire Acey. (Hallett declined to be interviewed for this article.)

They discussed what to do, causing Whiteley to be late for practice. When he arrived, he canceled it.

"He realized the magnitude and severity of this was such that the remainder of the season could be jeopardized," Acey says. "From the beginning, this was taken very, very seriously."

He was not the first coach to have to deal with problems off the field. In recent years, Centennial High School in Howard County disciplined soccer players and McDonogh School disciplined baseball players after hazing incidents. Just last week, Bel Air High School said it was investigating complaints that wrestling team members had prodded younger students with mop handles and barbells.

Elsewhere in the country, student athletes have been charged with beating newer players and with sex crimes that are alleged to have occurred during hazing initiations. In a notorious case, high school baseball players in New Jersey were charged with raping a mentally disabled girl.

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Since canceling the season and doling out the punishments, St. Paul's administrators have been careful about what they say publicly about the case because of concerns about lawsuits being filed by the girl or the players.

The administrators won't discuss how the boys got the idea to make the video, but a source familiar with the case attributed it to talk about "American Pie" and a reportedly similar incident at an area school.

Acey says rumors that the lacrosse players were betting about who could videotape a girl first are false and that school officials are confident there were only two copies of the tape, both of which have been destroyed.

The school has received more than 60 e-mails and letters in support of its response to the incident, Acey says.

"I feel loss for the pleasure of a lacrosse season, for watching [my son play], compassion for all the suffering," one parent of a lacrosse player wrote. "At the same time I am very thankful for this two-by-four that is hitting all of us in the head and for St. Paul's for being courageous enough to stand behind its mission."

Some other parents of players are angry, however. They complain that players who did not view the video are being punished by losing the opportunity to play this season. And they say the punishment does not fit the crime. They suggest that it is so harsh because some people resent the team.

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"A lot of people are actually glad about this whole thing," says one player's father. "There's a certain undercurrent at St. Paul's against the kids who are more successful. St. Paul's, as far as I'm concerned, hung these kids out to dry."

But George Nilson, a Baltimore lawyer speaking on behalf of the school, says the school had little choice.

"If this season had not been ended and they had somehow figured a way to let it resume almost immediately, it would have sent a message that lacrosse is more important than what just happened. That wasn't the message."

Whiteley, the coach, recognizes that feelings are running high. "Some of the parents understood from the first; others, it took them a while," he said. "Their first response was to their own kids. One of them said, 'I can't agree with the decision, but I can't disagree with it either.' That's partially how I feel. There are no winners in this."

In the past week, boys on the team have been attending counseling sessions at the school, a program intended to make them better appreciate and respect the dignity of other people.

The Rev. Mike Wallens, the school chaplain, describes the sessions as intense, and says the team members are barraged with emotions. But he believes the players are getting the point.

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"When the conversation would stray, there was a nucleus of boys who brought it back to, 'This is why we're here, we did it by our own actions,'" he says. "They were always, 'Let's not forget what got us here. It was us. It was our actions.'"

Sun staff writers Lem Satterfield and Lynn Anderson contributed to this article.


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