NORTH SMITHFIELD – In testimony that was at times angry and at others emotional, a group of players from the North Smithfield High School football team spoke to members of the School Committee this week, saying the hazing allegations that led to suspension of the program last month are false, and that they deserve an apology.
North Smithfield Police Chief Tim Lafferty, meanwhile, has issued a statement calling the investigation of the allegations, “very active,” and stating that the lack of information shared with the players and the community thus far, “is to protect the integrity of the case and paramountly protect any potential victims and cooperating witnesses from being publicly identified and/or fearful to come forward.”
For the players, who saw the start of their season come to a sudden halt nearly a month ago and their supporters, it seems the statement wasn’t nearly enough.
“We were blasted in front of the entire school and the entire community,” said player Zackary Kerrigan. “People are literally afraid of is. People have blocked us on social media… stopped talking to us.”
On Friday, June 24, Supt. Michael St. Jean sent a letter to parents on the decision to immediately halt all practices, workouts and games, also prohibiting the players from participating in other school sports, following what he called a “serious,” allegation of hazing. NRI NOW broke the story after a recipient shared the communication, in a controversy that has since been published by news media from across the state and beyond.
“The sad reality for us is, if the season is cancelled, we will have to go play elsewhere,” said Kerrigan, adding of his teammates, “I love them all like a brother. I would never allow such things to happen to my brother as what’s been said in the allegations. We deserve an apology.”
Kerrigan was one of many players to speak passionately at the meeting Tuesday night in defense of his teammates, coaches and the program itself.
“When I first heard of these allegations, I was very upset. I was very angry,” said player Charles Rapoza. “I’ve never seen or heard of any of these things happening – until that day.”
Since the news broke, Rapoza said he and his teammates have received threats and harassment on social media, as well as angry comments from other students. He and other players were critical of St. Jean over the decision to release a letter on the allegations, and of the lack of information since.
“I agree that the investigation should have gone on,” Rapoza said, adding, however, “to just get attacked from all directions, it’s not ok. I’ve gotten hundreds of different people calling us rapists, sexists.”
Players were also critical of the decision to suspend the program before investigating the claims.
“Football is the only thing that motivated me to keep coming to school,” said Rapoza, noting that the ability for the team to play their best has been stolen by the decision to suspend practice. “We can’t get there without our pre-season. It’s not like any other sport, where you can just go out there, and play and have fun. The most important part of our season is now gone, but we will overcome that.”
Starting quarterback and four year varsity player Cole Vowels said that during his time at the school, “football has been my entire life.”
“With no evidence of misbehavior, why are we being punished?” Vowels asked. “Isn’t it innocent until proven guilty? There was no such activity going on.”
Vowels also said that rumors about the incident have led to judgement and harassment for all of the players.
“My fellow teammates and I are afraid of wearing our Northmen clothes out in public,” he said. “You could have kept this behind closed doors to find out yourself the allegations are false. This has gone on for much longer than it should have.”
Kristen Mckeating, a parent of one player, said she wrote a speech planning to defend the team, but the players had hit all of her points.
“I just felt someone should speak out for them, but they did it themselves,” Mckeating said. “I’m just so proud of all of them.”
Mckeating portrayed the suspension email as an event that “altered the rest of these boys’ lives.”
“The boys were vilified and treated as guilty,” she said. “The horrible rumors and stories going around are disgusting. They don’t deserve any of that.”
“You may say that this is just athletics, but it is so much more than that,” she said. “What good could come out of punishing everyone without hearing the facts?”
“We questioned our kids over and over, and their response has never changed: nothing happened,” added Mckeating. “Now, here we are a month later, and still we have heard nothing.”
Kerrigan said that 44 kids signed up for this year’s football program, a co-op with Mount Saint Charles Academy, and many are hoping that the sport could lead to college scholarships. If allowed to resume, the team’s regular season, led by second year coach Jeff Paiva, is set to begin August 15.
Kerrigan choked up as he read the committee the names of his teammates.
“We represent the Northmen with pride, on and off the field,” Kerrigan said. “Our conduct will always represent the program in the most positive manner possible.”
School Committee Chairman James Lombardi said he’s hopeful the school – and the sports program – will be able to get back to normal soon.
“I am a big supporter of the team,” Lombardi said. “The allegations, obviously, must be investigated.”
He defended St. Jean’s actions, noting of the superintendent, “He is following the solicitor’s advice.”
For his part, St Jean said to the dozens of player and parents in attendance Tuesday, July 19, “Please understand, when we hear something, we immediately have to act. It’s a process that we all need to follow.”
Committee member Peg Votta also addressed the students, stating, “I know how difficult this is for all of you. I hope to hear quickly back from the police department.”
Votta added that if the allegations are found to be false, “All apologies will be there.”
“I stand with you,” she said.
Editor’s note: An original version of the above article identified the parent who spoke as Kristen McCready. We apologize for the error.