Investigator finds unintentional ‘bullying’ by former MHS coach

“Although not intentional,” now-former Marblehead High girls soccer coach John Dormer engaged in what constitutes “bullying” under state law, an investigator concluded.

The Current received a redacted copy of the 18-page confidential investigation report, authored by Winchester attorney Katie A. Meinelt, in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

Members of the School Committee have shown a recent interest in learning more about the circumstances that led to the report’s creation.

At the School Committee’s July 6 “workshop” meeting, School Committee Chair Sarah Fox proposed convening an executive (private) session of the board to discuss the report, which she said cost the district $26,000.

Part of her concern, she said, was whether there was “lag time” in bringing complaints about Dormer “through the chain of command.”

Superintendent John Buckey asked Fox which of the 10 permissible reasons for entering executive session under the state’s open meeting law such a discussion would fall under.

Fox cited the first: “to discuss the reputation, character, physical condition or mental health, rather than professional competence, of an individual, or to discuss the discipline or dismissal of, or complaints or charges brought against, a public officer, employee, staff member or individual.”

A slide presentation at the School Committee’s June 1 meeting on all the FOIA requests the district had received in recent months referencing a “Former Coach Investigation Report” prompted concerned parents to reach out, she explained. 

Now, Fox said her interest was, “Was there information in that report that would change policy? Have we missed a hole in our policies? There were concerns on… how long did it take for this to come to light.”

At the July 6 meeting, Buckey asked whether the board would want other people involved in the investigation, like Athletic Director Gregory Ceglarski or now-former MHS Principal Dan Bauer, to attend the executive session. Fox replied in the negative, noting they were not under the board’s “purview.”

The committee had scheduled the executive session for July 20 but canceled it shortly before it occurred. Fox told the Current this was due to a scheduling conflict with the board’s attorney. As of July 25, the meeting had yet to be rescheduled.

In a statement provided to the Current Wednesday morning, Buckey’s attorney, Michael J. Long, explained that Buckey met with parents of a student on the girls soccer team and Bauer in the small conference room in his office at Widger Road last August.

“The discussion centered around frustrations with playing time, roster placements, communication with the coach and athletic director and allegations of favoritism,” Long wrote. “At no time were there concerns of ‘bullying’ or a ‘hostile environment’ raised. Those words were not used, and the discussion did not raise any red flags around bullying, hazing or harassment.”

At that time, the parents did not ask Buckey about filing a formal complaint or pursuing these issues, according to Long. Instead, a plan was developed for the Bauer and Ceglarski to facilitate a meeting with the coach, the parents and the student-athlete.

“Principal Bauer’s recollection of the meeting aligns with Dr. Buckey’s, and Mr. Bauer has put that in writing,” Long said.

According to Long, Buckey did not hear anything more about the family’s concerns until late October.

Around Oct. 22, Student Services Director Paula Donnelly informed Buckey that a formal bullying complaint about the coach had been anonymously filed dated Oct. 21. According to Long, Donnelly told Buckey she was hiring an independent investigator to pursue the complaint, consistent with her duties as Marblehead’s Title IX and bullying investigator.

Buckey was not contacted about the investigation by the independent investigator and was never asked by the investigator to be interviewed, according to Long.

Long said he had recently suggested Buckey ask Director of Technology Stephen Kwiatek to do an email search for any correspondence with him regarding the coach and bullying.

“There were no emails to him prior to the formal complaint being filed,” Long said.

Long continued, “So, as to what Dr. Buckey knew and when he knew it, he became aware of a ‘bullying’ complaint at the end of October 2022. As Marblehead’s policies dictate, the investigation was initiated by the student services director, Paula Donnelly. For reasons of ensuring the integrity of the investigation, Dr. Buckey did not contact the investigator, nor was he instructed by Marblehead’s counsel to do so. In fact, it would have been inappropriate for him to do so, as Marblehead’s policies, the law and good sense do not permit him to thumb the scales of an investigation one way or another.”

Poor communication among ‘recurring themes’

Meinelt was hired after a parent filed an official, anonymous complaint authorized under the state’s bullying law, G.L.c. 71 §37O.

Under state law, there are six different types of impacts that can constitute bullying by a school staff member, including an athletic coach. Meinelt determined that Dormer’s words and actions, “although not intentional,” met two of the criteria: They caused emotional harm to certain players and created a hostile environment to certain players.

“The bullying statute does not include language about the intent of the alleged aggressor; instead it focuses on the impact the words or actions have on the victim,” Meinelt explained.

Meinelt recommended that there be a “significant shift in the culture of the program so this group of young women will graduate from Marblehead High School with a more positive athletic experience.”

The school adopted that recommendation by not asking Dormer back for the fall 2023 season. The MHS athletic department website lists the position as vacant.

Beginning Nov. 8, Meinelt spent several weeks speaking with 11 families, including five current or former players, all of whom requested anonymity out of fear of retaliation. She also spoke separately with the two varsity assistant coaches, Jaimee Callahan and Kiley Allosso, and separately and together with Ceglarski and Bauer before having three conversations with Dormer.

Meinelt placed the “recurring themes” that emerged from those interviews into three categories: poor communication, bullying and retaliation.

With respect to poor communication, Meinelt found that Dormer created lingering confusion with respect to players’ roles within the program, particularly a new category of player called “swing players,” who could move back and forth between the varsity and JV teams. Clear information and expectations about the “swing player” concept was not shared with players or families, which had induced so much anxiety that one player suffered panic attacks, Meinelt found.

“This lack of clarity put a lot of pressure on these young teenagers and had a profound psychological impact on several players,” Meinelt wrote.

The confusion also created divisions among the players, as “practice players” were initially excluded from activities with their varsity teammates until Dormer clarified their status.

As the season progressed, the slights against the practice players persisted, as swing players — mostly freshmen — were allowed to claim varsity uniforms before the practice players, who were members of the junior and senior classes. Due to a shortage, the uniforms ran out before all of the practice players could get one.

Meinelt credited Dormer’s explanation that he was more concerned with the uniform shortage generally than the order in which players were assigned uniforms but indicated that he did not seem to appreciate the impact of not getting a uniform.

“Not getting a uniform caused [the practice players] to feel like they were not on the team and created a divide amongst them and the other varsity players,” she wrote.

Meinelt also chronicled the effect of what Dormer said was a joke but at least some players did not take that way: that starters would get their own seat on the team bus to its playoff game, while everyone else would have to double or triple up in the remaining seats.

“In my conversations with Coach Dormer and Mr. Ceglarski, they both focused on the fact that there were enough seats on the bus so it would not have been an issue,” Meinelt wrote. “Neither seemed to understand the underlying message that was sent to the players.”

Meinelt concluded, “While I do not believe Coach Dormer intended for players to be impacted by the lack of communication and expectations around each player’s role within the program, I have concluded that this did have a negative emotional and psychological impact on several players.”

Humor misses mark

More generally, Meinelt found that Dormer’s attempts at humor were “often misinterpreted by others, especially young teenagers.”

One example was when a player scheduled a time to meet with him to ask how to improve her game, and Dormer allegedly told her she should smile more. Dormer denied making the remark, while one of his assistants said that, though she had not heard the comment, acknowledged “that is his sense of humor.”

To the investigator, the player described how the comment “got in her head.” Soon, she was “focusing less on improving my skills and my understanding of the game and more on having my coach’s ideal personality,” trying to make sure she was spotted laughing and smiling at practice.

“This Investigator also witnessed firsthand his use of humor in conversation, so it is definitely part of his communication style,” Meinelt wrote.

Meinelt reiterated that Dormer may not recognize the degree to which his players’ self-image and confidence are tied to his words.

“While he may think he is joking and saying things that are funny, players on the receiving end of his jokes found them to be embarrassing and offensive,” Meinart wrote. “A coach’s role is to build his players up, not knock them down — even if done so unintentionally.”

Under the heading of “bullying,” Meinelt noted that the coach may have often crossed the line between “tough coaching” and “making targeted comments to a player with no instructional value.”

Dormer would also instill fear with his comments or would ignore or denigrate all but his “favorite players,” players said.

“Throughout my conversations with Coach Dormer, it appeared to me that he may not understand the emotional and psychological impact he has on these players and how they rely on him to help build their own self-confidence,” Meinelt wrote. “Young players are so impressionable and often crave the approval and praise of adults around them, especially those in a leadership role. I do not think Coach Dormer recognizes the importance of this.”

Players and families also described “empty promises” and “mind games” related to playing time and roles on the team.

“He would make repeated comments to players in front of others about weaknesses in their game causing players to feel belittled and embarrassed,” Meinelt wrote, recounting what players and parents had told her. “Multiple parents described this and shared that their daughters came home crying after practices and games because of it.”

Retaliation feared

Meinelt also described the resistance she met when trying to get cooperation with the investigation from families whose daughters feared retaliation in future soccer seasons. Players who did speak with her described seeking out feedback from Dormer, only to be treated differently after doing so.

Meinelt noted how important it is for young teenage girls to learn how to advocate for themselves.

“Fostering an environment where young females are taught to speak up for themselves should be one of the goals of any high school coach,” Meinelt wrote. “I do not believe that environment existed for a lot of players.”

Nonetheless, Meinelt said she found Dormer to be “an engaged coach who cares about the players and the soccer program.” She noted his assistant coaches were genuinely surprised he was being investigated.

“I have no doubt that there are current and former players who think Coach Dormer is a great coach and have no issues with him,” Meinelt wrote.

However, she did believe that certain players felt targeted by him.

It would be impossible to substantiate every comment Dormer had been accused of making, Meinelt explained.

“What I was able to substantiate, however, was that several players were emotionally and psychologically impacted by his words and actions, such that it created a hostile environment for them,” Meinelt wrote. “His lack of communication with his players led to a lot of unnecessary stress and anxiety for players, so much so that some were physically ill because of it. His use of sarcasm and humor embarrassed certain players. His repeated comments about a player’s skills made her uncomfortable and self-conscious. His empty promises impacted players emotionally and psychologically. Girls believed they could not bring forward concerns to him without being retaliated against.”

Under the bullying statute, it is the impact the words or actions have on the victim — not the intent of the alleged aggressor — that matters, Meinelt noted.

Neither Dormer nor Ceglarski immediately responded to requests for comment.

Player’s input never sought

To Joe Selby, Meinelt’s investigation was “botched.”

His daughter, Talia, is one of the rising senior captains of the MHS girls soccer team and has found the dismissal of her coach, whom she considered an important mentor, “personally upsetting,” Joe Selby said.

No player in the Marblehead soccer system has spent more time with Dormer than his daughter, who has been on the varsity team since her freshman year.

That first year, Selby’s daughter did not play a lot, but Dormer effectively communicated with her to set her expectations appropriately, Selby said.

Given how long she had been in the program and the fact that she was likely a “material witness” to many of the incidents detailed in the report, Selby said he remains a bit mystified that Meinelt showed no interest in talking with his daughter, seemingly only speaking with the people lodging the complaints against the coach.

For example, given the chance, his daughter would have told the investigator that Dormer’s statement about players needing to triple up on bus seats to the playoff game  was “plainly a joke,” he said. 

By the time his daughter and other players were able to get a meeting with Bauer and Ceglarski, Selby said the administrators told them that they were constrained legally as to what they were able to discuss, but regardless, the investigation was closed.

In the absence of a coach, Selby said it has fallen to parents to fill in some of the gaps as the fall season approaches, like signing up for an upcoming preseason tournament. Selby said his hopes are quickly fading that what is likely his daughter’s last experience playing competitive soccer can be salvaged.

“She is a senior, so this is it for her,” he said. “Whoever is responsible for this botched investigation ruined her senior soccer season.”

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