By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

How our weak public records law is enabling a cover-up of school sports harassment

Photo (cc) 2016 by NAVFAC

Sports builds character, we are told over and over again. And yet Massachusetts has been hit with multiple cases of racist, homophobic harassment aimed at high school athletes.

🗽The New England Muzzles🗽

The leading journalist tracking those cases is Bob Hohler of The Boston Globe, who’s reported on horrifying cases in Danvers, Woburn, Duxbury and elsewhere. Yet his efforts to dig deeper have been improperly thwarted by the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association. According to Hohler, the MIAA has refused to turn over incident reports in response to a public records request even though the secretary of state’s office has ruled that those records are, indeed, public. Hohler writes:

Details of the alleged misconduct remain untold because the MIAA denied the Globe’s request for copies of the incident reports. The denial follows a ruling by the Secretary of State’s office in November that the MIAA, despite the organization’s objections, is a public entity subject to the state’s public records law.

MIAA executive director Bob Baldwin told Hohler that his organization has chosen to ignore the public’s right to know because officials don’t want to discourage schools from reporting incidents of harassment. Yet the lesson of past incidents is that reforms often don’t occur without exposure. For instance, it was only after Hohler reported that Danvers officials had failed to respond to a “toxic team culture” on the boys’ varsity hockey team that the attorney general’s office investigated and local leaders agreed to a series of reforms centered around policies and training. Hohler’s reporting was also followed by several departures, including the retirement of School Supt. Lisa Dana.

More than anything, Hohler’s report on the MIAA this week underscores the inadequacies of the Massachusetts public records law. There are few consequences for officials who refuse to comply with the law, even when they ignore a direct ruling to turn over public documents, as the MIAA is reportedly doing with Hohler and the Globe.

According to Hohler, the MIAA “has received 50 reports involving discrimination, harassment, or bullying — nearly one a week on average while school has been in session — since the organization began requiring its 380 member schools to file discriminatory incident reports starting with the winter season in late 2021.” The public deserves to know more about those reports.

The future of the New England Muzzle Awards

This is the time of year when I would be putting the finishing touches on the New England Muzzle Awards, an annual Fourth of July feature that highlights outrages against freedom of speech in the six New England states. From 1998 through 2012, the Muzzles were published in The Boston Phoenix. After the Phoenix closed in 2013, they were hosted at GBH News.

The one constant over all those years had been my friend Peter Kadzis’ role as editor at both the Phoenix and GBH. Following Peter’s well-earned retirement, I’ve decided that last year’s 25th anniversary edition will be the last. I’ll still track the kinds of stories that I used to highlight in the Muzzles, and the MIAA story would have been a natural. But rather than an annual round-up, I’m going to write them up in real time for Media Nation. You’ll notice a weak attempt at a logo near the top of this post. I’ll try to come up with something better.

I also want to express my appreciation to GBH News for hosting the Muzzles during the final 10 years of their existence, and to civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate, my friend and occasional collaborator, for coming up with the idea all those years ago.


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1 Comment

  1. Lex Alexander

    [[MIAA executive director Bob Baldwin told Hohler that his organization has chosen to ignore the public’s right to know because officials don’t want to discourage schools from reporting incidents of harassment.]]

    Sure, Jan. I mean Bob.

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