Attorney General's Report Criticizes Vermont Investigation
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
Charges of severe hazing among the University of Vermont's hockey team, raised in a lawsuit by former student Corey Latulippe against the school, were supported in a 20-page report released Thursday by the Vermont Office of the Attorney General.
Latulippe, a walk-on men's ice hockey candidate, filed charges after being cut from the team and leaving school in October. His lawsuit claimed he approached school officials with concerns over an upcoming freshman initiation party, which occurred Oct. 2.
An internal school investigation into the party uncovered only minor transgressions, such as underage drinking. Subsequently, on Dec. 3, head coach Mike Gilligan, believing the players were truthful during the internal investigation, suspended each player for one game on a rotating basis.
Latulippe's lawsuit, filed Dec. 10, alleged much more severe hazing incidents, and the school then asked the Office of the Attorney General to investigate further. In January, school president Judith Ramaley cancelled the remainder of the season, admitting players were not truthful during the original investigation.
Thursday, Attorney General William Sorrell presented the summary findings of his office's report in a press release.
Among the findings:
• The essence of virtually all of Latulippe's allegations are true.
• Against a written directive by Coach Gilligan, players agreed to lie to school investigators about the Oct. 2 party.
• Coach Gilligan did what he could to warn the athletes about hazing rituals.
• The only criminal charges filed will involve serving alcohol to minors, and the report recommends that a charge be filed against at least one upperclassman, identified as senior co-captain Kevin Karlander.
• The UVM hockey team has participated in similar parties/bonding rituals since at least 1996.
• Most of all, the report verified, and, in many cases, added to, Latulippe's allegations. Incidents described in Latulippe's lawsuit and the report include consumption of significant amounts of warm beer and hard liquor, pouring of beer on freshmen, forcing freshmen to do pushups while dipping their genitals into beer and then drinking the beer, adulterated pie-eating contests, extensive vomiting, interactions with strippers, the "elephant walk" (parading in a line while holding the genitals of the person directly ahead), and the nude "olive run" (involving carrying olives between their buttocks).
These events, according to the report, date back to at least 1996.
In one of the more scathing points, the report says the school and its attorneys did not thoroughly investigate Latulippe's claims, and that the internal investigation only served to justify the school's response. The report paints lead attorney Pamela Heatlie, and others, in a harsh light for doing little more than simple fact-finding, and it scolds the school and its lawyers for not following through more thoroughly with the information they gathered.
For example, Ramaley only contacted the Office of the Attorney General after the lawsuit became public on Dec. 10. She said that was because the suit contained additional and more severe hazing allegations than previously believed. But the report specifically says that an initial letter, hand-delivered to Ramaley by Latulippe attorney Gail Westgate on Oct. 28, outlined an almost identical version of events.
The report also admonished school officials for failure to disclose the incident to police. The school said it was trying to protect student's rights under the Federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), but the report says those rights only protect a student's educational records, not criminal conduct. According to the report, the local police actually contacted school attorneys directly, asking if a discussion of criminal activity was needed, but the school did not acknowledge the offer.
"There is little in the way of good news in this report," said Sorrell. "Many individuals have made many mistakes in this matter. Lives have been scarred, but we can feel fortunate that some of the consequences have not been worse."
Ramaley and other school officials have stood by the assertion that they weren't trying to hide anything, and that they weren't trying to be misleading in their comments to the media.
"The way in which we communicated about the hazing incident from the beginning was based on our zealous protection of our students' rights," Ramaley said. "Our release of limited information created the unfortunate perception that we were attempting to cover up the situation. We were not. But, as a person who is known to be open and direct, I regret that this perception exists.... I contributed to this perception through statements I made and have since corrected, and I apologize for that.
"I regret that these and other actions we took fell short. I take full responsibility for our actions, and for the mistakes we made. What does that mean? It means that we openly acknowledge mistakes. That we learn from them. That we hold people responsible for their actions. That we make sure that we don't repeat our mistakes, and that we implement effective solutions."
Sorrell has referred his report and recommendations to Chittenden County State's Attorney Lauren Bowerman for final decisions on who should be prosecuted. Vermont does not have a hazing law, but the report urged the creation of one.
In deciding not to pursue assault charges, the report says, "The pending civil litigation seems an appropriate forum, given the current state of the law, to redress wrongs of a potentially assaultive nature perpetrated at the party. Consequently, we decline to file charges of simple assault against any present or former member of the hockey team for the activities of October 2. At the same time, we note that we are indeed fortunate that the hazing activities did not result in the death or serious bodily injury of any player."
The incident has received major national attention in recent weeks, with lengthy feature oldarticles in the Washington Post and the New York Times.
Since Ramaley cancelled the remainder of the season, Vermont has continued to practice under coach Gilligan. Senior Matt Sanders has left the school to sign a minor-pro contract, and others may follow. After leaving the school, Latulippe went to play junior hockey for a team in Rochester, N.Y.
Most players have been publicly quiet about the situation. Junior goalie Andrew Allen and Karlander have been exceptions. Karlander, who rents the house where the party took place and is facing misdemeanor charges, has been the most outspoken critic of Ramaley's decision to cancel the remainder of the season.
"We would never do anything to hurt our own teammate," said Karlander to the New York Times. "The governor made a political move to end our season so he could say 'Hazing will not be allowed.' The governor? The attorney general? Are you kidding me? It's a college! We're getting hung out to dry. We're being made an example of.... It's stressful. It's confusing. I don't even go to class. I don't sleep well at night. I have nightmares."
Junior goalie Andrew Allen was one of the first players to urge his teammates to cooperate with the investigation, saying he's also felt uncomfortable in the past about team rituals.
"I don't agree with hazing, and I don't think it should happen anywhere," Allen told the New York Times. "[But] it's a team sport and a team game. You go along with your team and what the team decides to do and you support that no matter what. You don't want to upset the team chemistry. [Latulippe] went against anything that I've ever believed in a team sport. There definitely is resentment toward him."
The report mentions that players met at Karlander's house just before the school conducted its interviews. They agreed at the time to withhold certain information from school investigators, in direct violation of a memo from coach Gilligan reminding them of their obligation to be fully truthful and to avoid meeting with each other.
The future of Gilligan remains in doubt. He has said that "somebody's head's going to roll" for this, but it's uncertain whose head it will be. Gilligan has the support of the hockey-coaching fraternity, many of whom call his reputation rock-solid, but how far that goes, nobody knows.
The incident is sure to spark more debate over hazing and its places in sports and on campuses. Many players who were interviewed in the investigation said similar incidents, if not worse, have occurred with previous high school and junior teams they've been on.
That information is not shocking to most sports insiders, but many assumed such incidents had been toned down in recent years. But a recent Alfred (N.Y.) University study concluded that over 80 percent of male collegiate athletes partake in hazing rituals.
"Hazing — much like high-risk binge drinking among college students, another difficult national issue UVM is confronting — is a complex problem that won't be solved with simplistic, quick-fix approaches," said Frank Bolden, UVM Board of Trustees Chair. "As we've had to do with binge drinking, we must draw from the community — even those highly critical of us — to develop solutions. Very importantly, we must be sure to involve our students every step of the way."