An assistant football coach who was fired this month after reporting what he described as hazing among players in the locker room is accusing of making him a scapegoat.
Pat Cornelius said Thursday he was told he was being fired as an assistant coach on Oct. 14, the same day he said he saw a senior player physically intimidating a freshman player, in a bathroom stall in the boys' locker room at the high school.
What he witnessed was not “rough-housing,” he said, referring to the term used by Superintendent of Schools Robert Tremblay.
“Honestly, it was hazing,” Cornelius said.
Cornelius, who said he to the athletic director, said he saw perhaps 25 or 30 freshmen players, all lined up, when he entered the locker room. The boys were all facing a stall. When Cornelius approached, and said “What’s going on?” the stall door opened and a freshman player emerged.
"He had a stunned look on his face," Cornelius said.
Inside the stall was a senior member of the football team, sitting on the toilet, Cornelius said. The assistant coach said the freshman was fully clothed, but the other player had “his pants down.” The activity did not appear sexual, he said, but instead it looked as if the freshman had been forced to watch the other player go to the bathroom.
“I didn’t know what it was. I lost it,” said Cornelius, an assistant coach for the past four years.
"You imagine the kid that was in there, how humiliated he was. . . . being kept against his will."
Cornelius said he yelled at all of the team members, and swore as well. By that point, all of the boys were near their lockers. “I said, I can’t believe this went on. Forget about football. Forget the game. You big tough guys picking on these little freshmen kids.”
At one point, he said, he kicked over a trash can. "I was just so angry."
After he started yelling, another assistant coach came into the area. Cornelius said he was fired later in the practice, after school officials spoke with the two students who initiated the incident. At the time, Cornelius said, he had only seen one senior involved.
The school administration would later punish two of the varsity football players who allegedly participated in the incident; the players were temporarily suspended from game play.
The Milford Schools superintendent, Robert Tremblay, has described the incident as inappropriate “rough-housing.”
Tremblay would not identify the students involved, citing student privacy law. The student who was the object of the two players' actions was not injured, he said Wednesday night.
"It is not believed to be a matter of hazing," he said. "There was some rough-housing in a locker room." The Oct. 14 incident was investigated by the school administration, Tremblay said, and is not a police matter. He would not elaborate on the nature of the incident.
Milford Police Chief Thomas O'Loughlin said Thursday information about the incident was referred to his department by school officials, but after he reviewed the state law on hazing, he determined the incident at the high school did not rise to that level.
As a criminal act, hazing means a "conduct or method of initiation" into a student organization that "willfully or recklessly endangers the physical or mental health of any student or other person," he said. Examples of such conduct can include "whipping, beating, branding, forced calisthenics, exposure to the weather" and other such treatment that endangers health or safety.
The boys were all members of a team, O'Loughlin said. As freshmen, the younger players were assigned to a different team, one that shared a locker room with the varsity players.
"Doing stupid things doesn't necessarily equate to hazing," O'Loughlin said. "Is it stupid? Is it gross? Yes. Is it brutal treatment" . . . from the standpoint of something that "could lead to death? I don't think it rises to that level."
Tremblay acknowledged the assistant coach who witnessed the incident was dismissed from his at-will position, but said it was because he reacted inappropriately in the manner in which he "yelled" at the players. The superintendent did not offer details about what the assistant coach did or said, other than to say: "It was out of line."
Jim Wittorf, an attorney who is advising Cornelius, said beyond being "a little passionate" in his language, the assistant coach did nothing wrong. He never touched or threatened any of the students, Wittorf said. "If they fired every coach in Massachusetts for using the F-word, there would be a lot of positions open."
The two players who initiated the incident were disciplined in terms of their athletic play. But Tremblay said he was not certain whether the students also were disciplined at school, including through a suspension. That decision was made by Principal Mike Tempesta, who referred questions on the issue Wednesday to the superintendent.
The two players were prevented from playing in several games, Tremblay said, and could not dress for the games.
Cornelius, who said he plans to hire an attorney, said the players should have been prevented from playing for the rest of the year. He also would not identify the players.
Cornelius feels he was unjustly fired. "They're making me out to be the scapegoat for something they want to cover up."
Cornelius also is the head coach of track, a position he assumes he's also lost. The principal, he said, told him he could stay on as assistant coach if he would agree to attend counseling. But in offering that, Cornelius said, the system was trying to say he was at fault in the incident. He said he was told, 'The kids are afraid to be around me.'
"Who? The kids who I told what they did?"