Editor’s note: The names in this story have been changed to protect the victim. This story contains an account of an assault that may be a trigger for other victims of sexual or domestic abuse. It also contains mild profanity.
A father of two girls, Mark Smith always prepared himself for the phone call – that a man had hurt one of his daughters.
It’s any parent’s worst nightmare, and in April of this year, the call came. Not about his daughters but his 16-year old son. He was possibly a victim of sexual crime, the caller said.
The meeting that ensued opened the tightly closed lid on alleged sexual assaults and hazing among former Milton High School football players.
The Chittenden Unit for Special Investigations conducted more than 90 interviews, and at the end, charged five former Yellowjackets with simple assault, a misdemeanor this victim’s family thinks doesn’t do their son’s trauma justice.
A trauma they first heard about 18 months after their son was reportedly dragged down to a basement and sodomized with a pool cue by teammates he trusted.
Every day since, the Smiths thank the person who overheard a child taunting their son on the bus and reported it to the Vt. Department for Children and Families.
“My son opened up Pandora’s box,” the victim’s mother, Jennifer, said. “This is why no one is talking. It’s bigger, what he did, what happened.”
The victim’s family reached out to the Milton Independent last month after learning that the five defendants – Brandon Beliveau, Ryan Carlson, Colby Darling, Will Jenkins and Brian Lasell, who all pleaded not guilty in court – were handed the light charge.
Mark and Jennifer wanted people to know the truth, which was eventually outed after the arraignment on August 19.
“No way in hell was it hazing. It wasn’t pull his underwear down, hold him down and make him drink a gallon of water,” Jennifer said. “It was hold him down and shove a pool stick up his ass. It was serious, downright disgusting, awful, sick rape is what it was.”
The Smiths say the school district knew, but just like their son, weren’t telling. So now, they’re talking.
The Smiths’ son grew up playing football since preschool. Starting at flag football, he stuck with it and made it onto the junior varsity team in 2012, his freshman year at MHS.
Right before school began, tragedy struck when a teammate committed suicide, sending the players into a spiral of grief when they’d normally be celebrating the season opening.
Thinking the team would provide support, the Smiths didn’t hesitate much to let their only son and oldest child attend team parties and sleepovers. The Lasells lived nearby, they thought, if anything went awry.
The first two times Mark picked up his son, he was happy and laughing. But one Thursday night, he was quiet.
“Shortly after that, he didn’t want to go to any more of the dinners,” Mark recalled. “He didn’t want to play football, but I never put two and two together. I just assumed he was going through a phase.”
The student would shut himself in his room and play video games, distancing himself from his family. He didn’t want to go hunting with his dad anymore but especially wanted nothing to do with sports.
“He would make every excuse in the book,” Jennifer said, but they made him keep with it. “He had things that he kept that he didn’t want us to know.”
More than half of sexual assault victims don’t report it, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network says. Near a quarter don’t tell because it’s such a personal violation.
This “say nothing” ethos prevailed in Milton.
Police confirmed at least three victims in the case, but the Smiths believe there are more who won’t talk. The police affidavit itself says varsity players declined to assist with the investigation.
“There’s a code of silence,” Mark said. “No one wants to talk about it.”
The Smiths’ son thought his initiation was over.
At the beginning of his first high school season, the student told police his teammates forced him to lick mayonnaise off one of the player’s legs, certainly a degrading act but not one that would affect him for months to come.
A team dinner later that fall started out as a good time. The boys were eating and joking together until the actual initiation started, when the victim said he was dragged downstairs and held on a couch. He kicked, screamed and tried to writhe away, pleading with one of the defendants, who told him, “I can’t help you with this one,” the police paperwork says. The assault tore the boy’s athletic shorts.
The student would later tell police the attack caused him pain valued at six and fear at 10 on a 0 to 10 scale. He felt it was something out of “Law and Order.”
The defendants told detectives that teammates routinely taunted, poured water and even placed their genitals on each other. They acknowledged poking kids with broomsticks and pool cues, “not gently, that’s for sure,” one is quoted in police affidavits.
Eventually, word got around school, though administrators told the Independent they heard nothing that serious.
“Before you know it, it just started falling apart,” Jennifer said. “The football team was starting to disintegrate.”
A violation of trust
Nearly a year after the assault and just before a new school year, the Smiths’ phone rang. It was MHS Principal Anne Blake, and she wanted to meet with their son.
Knowing he’d had some anger issues the previous year, they didn’t think much of the meeting, assuming it was about making a new start. Their son rode his bike to school and met with Blake, alone.
There, she asked him about the incident, telling him if anything had happened, the school would shut down the football program.
Feeling threatened, he denied the assault. Blake then made him tell incoming freshmen – one of whom had heard about the hazing and was afraid to join the team – that he’d lied, a police affidavit recounts. Blake, reached via email on medical leave, declined comment until she could ensure it wouldn’t affect the ongoing case.
Months later, the Smiths are furious about the meeting.
“To me, that’s basically telling someone don’t say it, [to] keep your mouth shut because there will be repercussions,” Mark said, interpreting Blake’s words. Even if she asked in a concerned, non-threatening way, he said, it translated differently to a 14-year-old, particularly a victim of sexual assault.
Jennifer thinks if she was there, or if she’d gotten a call afterward, she could have gotten it out of her son.
“It’s sad, and there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t cry about it,” she said. “I feel like I’ve let my son down from protecting him.
“I’m a good parent, and I did my job, but it’s so hard dealing with things like this,” she continued. “To see this happen to your son and see this happen to your community and not know it’s going on.”
Beyond the shock and sadness, the Smiths feel let down by the school district and team.
“I trusted them with my son,” Jennifer said. Teammates are supposed to be like brothers, and school employees should be caretakers.
“It could have been stopped. It could have been investigated. It was not properly taken care of at all. It was pushed aside,” Jennifer said.
Mark was further disappointed upon learning that Superintendent John Barone decided to not conduct an internal investigation into whether school officials failed to report the allegations. Barone has said the CUSI investigation was thorough and that the only reports passed up the command chain amounted to “fooling around.”
By absolving Blake, Barone called his son a liar, Mark said. He thinks if the victims were females or had a different sexual orientation, it would be taken more seriously. Instead, Mark said, Barone told the school board the five former students made a “foolish mistake,” which he says is an egregious understatement.
The Smiths think the criminal charges were understated, too, and don’t think the defendants should have been spared felonies.
“Instead you want to tarnish my kid’s life?” Jennifer asked. “Do you think my son will ever forget about this?”
After a miserable summer, school has restarted, and the Smiths have begun to heal.
Their son has agreed to therapy, bringing relief to Mark and Jennifer, who say despite the case opening up, he doesn’t talk to them about it much. They learned most of the detail from reading court documents.
“My head’s been in a total fog,” Mark said, rubbing his face wearily.
As for his son, he’s starting to be a kid again. Instead of locking himself in his room with his Xbox, he’s going out with friends, but he still has his ups and downs, and so do his parents. The Smiths already treat their daughters differently, being more than cautious when they ask to attend sleepovers or to join a team.
The victim’s parents hope the culture of silence around hazing and assaults will cease but think it will take time, and possibly a different district administration, to make real change.
“I had my doubts on our school system, and this just really blew it out of the water,” Jennifer said. “I don’t want to be negative toward things like this, but I just am, and it’s going to take a lot.”
Mark has doubts hazing will ever stop but hopes the team’s new coach, MHS teacher Drew Gordon, is committed to supervision and transparency – something their son never benefitted from on the team.
“Everything gets worse before it gets better,” he said. “I wish them the best.”