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Jim Kenyon: Hanover Parents, School Officials Playing Word Games

Hanover High Principal Justin Campbell and the school’s football booster club are playing word games. Do they really think there’s a discernible difference between a skit in which a girl is “gang banged” and one that depicts a gang rape?

They might try to make that argument in a court of law. Fortunately, they don’t have to. But in the court of public opinion, it’s a loser. The online dictionary I checked defined “gang bang” as “sexual intercourse, often rape, involving one person or victim and several others who have relations with that person in rapid succession.”

Case closed? Not quite.

Campbell and parents who run the booster club continue to nitpick a portion of a report by Norwich Police Chief Doug Robinson in which he described one of the Hanover High football team’s now infamous preseason skits as depicting a girl being “gang raped.” Robinson concluded that while some of the skits performed by freshmen at the request of older teammates were “sexual in nature,” he didn’t consider them to be hazing.

I thought Hanover school officials and parents would have jumped for joy at the news that Robinson had decided not to make the skits a law enforcement matter.

But apparently they weren’t satisfied.

In a letter that appeared on Hanover High’s website, Campbell wrote that the “skits objectified women — though not through the violent acts as have been reported.” The boosters wrote to their constituents, “In news stories, columns and letters to the editor, the Valley News has repeatedly published a false account of the skits — specifically, that one of them involved a depiction of a gang rape. That account is false, and highly damaging to these young men. No such skit occurred.”

Robinson based his report on talks with school officials (but not students) and an account written by school officials, who did question students. In that report, which police made public last week, Hanover school officials wrote that in one skit “a girl refused to have sex with a boy and then five more guys came along and they gang banged her.”

Campbell strikes me as a bright thoughtful guy. And as people in Hanover and Norwich aren’t shy to point out, many in their midst are well educated.

So what’s motivating them? Why do they think that describing the skit as depicting a “gang rape” rather than a “gang bang” is “highly damaging to these young men?”

I called Alison Gorman, president of the boosters club, but didn’t hear back. In an exchange of emails, Campbell declined to comment. But I suspect the fixation with semantics might have something to do with the college applications that high school seniors fill out this time of year. They (or their parents, anyway) are worried that if elite colleges get wind of a skit that depicted a “gang rape,” it could deep-six their sons’ chances of admission to Bowdoin or Middlebury or the like.

To grasp whether the fear was real, I called Michele Hernandez, a 1989 Dartmouth graduate who served as an assistant director of admissions at the college from 1992 to 1997. Hernandez is well known in the college admissions game (and make no mistake, it’s a high-stakes game). She runs Hernandez College Consulting, which, for a fee, helps students and parents navigate the admission process. She’s also written four books on the topic, including A Is for Admission: The Insider’s Guide to Getting into the Ivy League and Other Top Colleges.

I briefed Hernandez on what had happened at Hanover High. None of the students were facing criminal charges. No one had been suspended from school. And it was also my understanding that Hanover High wouldn’t be placing any mention of the skits in school records that accompany students’ applications to colleges.

“It’s disappointing the kids would do something like that, but it’s not going to ruin their lives,” said Hernandez, who lives in Weybridge, Vt. “If the school doesn’t put it in their report, there’s nothing to worry about.”

In today’s digital world, details of an individual’s accomplishments and mistakes are often only a Google search away. Maybe it’s only natural for parents and school officials to push the panic button.

Hernandez told me that while the Hanover High students’ bad behavior might be a source of “local drama,” colleges aren’t combing Google to see what they can dig up about their thousands of applicants. “They don’t have time to research every kid,” she said.

Even if parents’ fears are realized, I’m trying to imagine what might happen if the topic came up in a college interview.

“Is it true that you were involved in a skit that depicted a gang rape?” a college admissions officer could ask.

“Absolutely not,” the student could reply. “It was a skit that depicted a gang bang.”

“Whew, that’s an important distinction and I’m glad we’ve cleared it up.”

The students have undergone their public flogging. Campbell chastised the team for “egregiously inappropriate” behavior. The homecoming football game was canceled. Players have apologized for their youthful transgression.

School officials and parents should move on instead of carrying on.

Play football. Not word games.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at Jim.Kenyon@valley.net.