Hanover — Parents and the principal of Hanover High School are disputing the use of the words “gang rape” in a police report that described skits performed at an off-campus gathering by members of the school’s football team, which was later reprimanded.
Norwich Police Chief Doug Robinson said he based his report on an investigation by school administrators, who spoke to students involved in the skits and compiled their own report. However, the description of one particular skit in the two written reports varies by one phrase: While Robinson’s report described a simulated “gang rape,” the school’s report uses the term “gang bang.”
In a letter to the school community last week, Principal Justin Campbell wrote, “Our team made a mistake. Their skits objectified women — though not through the violent acts as have been reported.”
An email distributed last week among members of Friends of Hanover Football, a booster club, criticized the Valley News for reporting the police report’s account of a skit depicting “gang rape.”
“That account is false and highly damaging to these young men. No such skit occurred,” the email said. “The Valley News has been advised by Principal Justin Campbell and numerous parents that this information is not true and that none of the skits involved sexual assault (or any violence).”
Some of those raising complaints have suggested privately that the skit’s “gang bang” scenario was different from a “rape” because the fictitious girl consented to sex with multiple boys.
This week, Campbell declined to discuss that point for this article, as did parents of football players.
Because school officials and parents have been unwilling to provide details about the skits, the only account available before late last week was Robinson’s report. After the parents and the principal questioned its accuracy, however, the Valley News obtained a copy of the report the school district gave to police last month.
The school report, which Hanover police released last Friday as a public record, described this scenario from one of the skits choreographed for freshmen players by the team’s older members: “A girl refused to have sex with a boy and then five more guys came along and they gang banged her.”
The report later written by Robinson said: “A girl refused to have sex with a boy and then five more guys gang raped her.”
In an email, Robinson addressed whether there is a difference between “gang rape and “gang bang.” He wrote: “I guess the only question is how it is interpreted. Sounds pretty similar, however, if the school staff is saying that what is meant in their report that it was consensual group sex then I would defer to them.”
The skits occurred during the day at a home in Norwich after a preseason football practice. Robinson became involved as part of an investigation into whether the activities constituted hazing, which is a crime. (In the end, he decided not to cite any of the students.)
Abby Tassel, the assistant director of WISE, a Lebanon-based nonprofit that provides crisis services to people affected by domestic and sexual violence, praised Hanover High’s initial response to news of the skits. Calling the activity “egregiously inappropriate,” Campbell canceled the team’s homecoming game, among other measures.
But Tassel worried that “splitting hairs” now over descriptions of the skit perpetuates a culture in which boys and men see women as objects to be “banged.”
“I find it really hard to imagine that a woman would truly consent to a quote-unquote gang bang,” Tassel said. “That’s just not the message we want to be sending young men.”
Tassel said there’s a bigger conversation to be had about how society views women.
“At its heart, we need there to be a conversation about gender and how gender oppression operates in our society,” Tassel said. “It begins with how our society supports the violence and the objectification of women and the message to boys and men that they need to have control.”
Michael Bronski, a senior lecturer in women’s and gender studies at Dartmouth College, said he considers “gang bang” and “gang rape” to be synonyms. “Bang” is a violent word, he said, and in the real world, no high school girl would consent to having sex with five boys.
“If Hanover High is trying to make what most people consider a sexual assault look better, it’s not only foolish, it’s evasive and incredibly insulting and completely offensive,” Bronski said.
Bronski said he’s not surprised that high school boys did this skit because the same attitudes are routinely on display at Dartmouth and other schools. This is a clear manifestation of young boys absorbing a “rape culture” and thinking that rape is funny, Bronski said.
“We end up saying it’s not their fault and we can’t fix the culture,” Bronski said. “So we set up a paradigm where we never deal with the culture. Not calling it gang rape fits into it.”
While Campbell declined to discuss any details of the skits or clarify the distinction between “gang bang” and “gang rape,” he said in an interview this week he agrees that the school has work to do, calling it a “societal issue.”
“We as a school have said from the beginning that the skits were egregiously inappropriate,” Campbell said. “I am happy to do whatever I can to continue that conversation. If we as a society want to solve the problem, then we as a school need to be a part of it, but not just the school, the greater community, as well.”
But Campbell was clear to say that he doesn’t think he has “split hairs” or backtracked from his strong initial message to students condemning the skits.
“Our approach was to put in consequences that we felt were real and impactful. We did that,” Campbell said. “We’re working on addressing the skits and not the wording of the description of the skits.”
In the Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, gang bang is defined as a “copulation by several persons in succession with the same passive partner.” The secondary definition is “gang rape.”
WISE’s Tassel said some may consider “gang bang” to include a woman’s consent, but she questioned whether a girl or woman truly would consent to that.
“It sounds one, violent,” Tassel said. “Two, it sounds like one person or a group of people is doing it to someone else, which means that she is an object.”
Others, such as Lizann Peyton, of Norwich, a former board member of WISE and a former Hanover High parent, said the important conversation is about why high school freshmen are joking about this scenario.
“I think we should stop talking about who said what right now and focus on why this scenario of a gang rape in our culture is even something that exists,” Peyton said. “I don’t think we should put any more energy into the wording. The issue is why is the paradigm of boys gang raping a girl even a reality? Why is it unfortunately a true reality in our society?”
The larger question, Peyton said, is whether men understand the typical woman’s lifelong concerns about her own safety.
“Why are we in a culture where one half of the population has to think about their own safety from a very young age because they just happen to be girls?” Peyton said.
Peyton said she thinks the schools are doing a good job of creating a respectful environment within their buildings. For example, WISE visits area schools, including Hanover High, to talk about how to identify sexual assault and how to intervene as a bystander. But Peyton said there needs to be a larger message in the broader community that says this type of behavior won’t be tolerated.
“Even if it’s just skits that objectify women, what is it about the system that keeps those behaviors in place from generation to generation?” Peyton said. “How do we raise teenage boys that will step in and stop a situation, whether it’s teasing or physical threat or anything between?”
Peyton suggested an exercise where men and women sit in a room together and ask how do they keep themselves safe on a daily basis. Most men won’t say anything, Peyton said, but women will likely have a long list of measures.
Campbell said the school has reached out to WISE and other organizations in the wake of the skits, and he’s been considering professional development for teachers that could help them impart those lessons.
Coaches have attended Positive Coaching Alliance training in the past, and Campbell said he plans to bring that program to the school for all coaches, athletes and parents. The program focuses on sportsmanship and healthy character formation.
Peggy O’Neil, executive director of WISE, said she understands that these young men probably thought they were being funny.
She suggested taking the spotlight off the football players and instead look at this as an opportunity for everyone to examine what passes for humor in our culture.
“We’re not helping young people understand the greater context and how benign activities have a role in really terrible societal issues,” O’Neil said. “It’s not funny because there’s a similarity of truth to it.”
Sarah Brubeck can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3223.