St. Paul's lacrosse scandal precipitates soul-searching

Private school ponders: What caused teens' inappropriate actions?

April 08, 2001|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

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.

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.

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.

"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.

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