Bullying allegations date back years at Woburn High School’s football program

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The player alleges Woburn head coach Jack Belcher was behind the kick by encouraging his older teammates to – in Belcher’s words – ‘toughen up’ the younger ones. His complaint says Belcher witnessed the incident but did not reprimand either the attacker or the many players who taunted the alleged victim with vulgarities, insinuating he was “mild”.

Instead, Belcher asked the traumatized player to return to the field for an additional 35 minutes of contact drills, his complaint states. The student said he felt unwell and had persistent headaches, but did not seek treatment from the team‘s athletic trainer for fear of being further labeled as weak.

Additionally, according to the boy and his parents, school authorities failed to correct the abusive nature of Belcher’s coaching after reporting the incident.

Now, five years into Belcher’s coaching career at Woburn, the culture of his program and the school district‘s oversight of the former Boston College football player are under intense scrutiny.

“They’ve known for years that they have a bully training our kids and they haven’t done anything to stop him,” said Kevin Coucelos, Johnathan’s father. “He should have been fired”

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Johnathan Coucelos (centre) and his family have helped scrutinize Woburn’s football program.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Team

The Globe asked Belcher and other school officials for comment. In response, Woburn School Superintendent Matt Crowley released a statement saying, “I have been advised by the High School Administration that there is an allegation of bullying against Coach Jack Belcher. I understand that the allegation was made in 2019 and that the administration of the secondary school promptly investigated the allegation in accordance with our bullying prevention policy and procedure, and did not was founded. To my knowledge, no other allegation of intimidation has been made to the administration regarding this individual.

Crowley did not provide details about the 2019 allegation.

The Globe is not identifying the player who claims he was kicked in the head because a Middlesex Superior Court judge sealed the case in October, citing student confidentiality concerns. A hearing is scheduled in the Supreme Court Judicial in April on the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association’s appeal of a lower court injunction that allowed the former Woburn player to compete this year for the soccer teams and basketball from another MIAA school after the MIAA denied his request for a waiver for a fifth year of eligibility.

The former Woburn player claimed the waiver was justified in part because of the trauma he allegedly suffered in Belcher’s program. His new school joined the waiver and injunction petition.

Crowley, in a letter to the community this month, said the district has retained the services of an outside law firm to conduct a Title IX investigation into the Coucelos incident, which will be followed up by administrative review and policy analysis by a separate external agency. Federal Title IX law protects students from many forms of discrimination and violence, including bullying and hazing.

Crowley said in his latest statement to The Globe that the school district “will also ensure investigators are aware of this past and unsubstantiated allegation regarding Coach Belcher to ensure they are provided with all the necessary context to a full and fair investigation.”

Woburn Police are seeking assault charges in Lowell Juvenile Court against seven Woburn students, including five football players, for the alleged attack in the locker room and two subsequent incidents in which Johnathan was the alleged victim. A football player has been charged with indecent assault for allegedly pulling on Johnathan’s pants and touching his genitals in the locker room episode. The court is expected to decide in early March whether charges are warranted.

Many Woburn residents have expressed anger that Belcher allowed three of the alleged attackers, including the player facing a possible indecent assault charge, to remain on the football team during a prestigious game of the week Thanksgiving in Fenway Park.

Some Woburn residents are upset that alleged attackers were allowed to play at Fenway in the Thanksgiving game against Winchester.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

“What happened to that boy in the locker room was heinous,” said Lee Wilson, whose son Logan played for Belcher and graduated in 2020. “It’s also heinous that Belcher kept those kids in the locker room. ‘team.”

Wilson said he wasn’t surprised by the news of bullying in Belcher’s program. While the coach generally treated his son relatively well because he was one of the best players on the team – Logan is now a quarterback at Fitchburg State University – Wilson said he was aware of Belcher’s practice of pitting older, stronger players against other teammates.

“Bullying and hazing happens when you pit players against each other like he does,” Wilson said.

The student leaders of the Woburn team have taken a stand in recent days in favor of Belcher. Ten football captains – six seniors and four juniors – circulated a letter to news outlets saying they were not trying “to downplay the allegations being investigated by the right people”.

“In fact, we all condemn bullying of any kind,” the captains wrote. “We strictly respond to how the integrity of the team, the direction of the athletic department and the football program are unfairly attacked in the community.”

They said: “Head Coach Jack Belcher has always given us nothing less than his attention and passion for his job as a coach and a leader. It instills hard work, with strict rules, respect for team members, and respect for adults at all times. He is a good person who cares a lot about us.

A parent who asked not to be identified said his son, who graduated in 2021, was bullied on the training ground, in the locker room and elsewhere in the school by his football teammates. In the most disturbing incident, the parent said, his son was a freshman when four older teammates attacked him in a school hallway after Belcher allegedly encouraged stronger players to ‘toughen up’ those perceived as the weakest.

“I told Belcher he’s an adult bully and shouldn’t drag anyone’s kids,” the parent said. “I also told the principal, who didn’t arrest him.”

The parents of the boy who was allegedly kicked in 2018 also blamed the school administration. They said in their civil complaint that they reported the incident to the manager, Jessica Callanan, shortly after it happened. Four days later, they said, Callanan told them she had fixed the problem, without explaining how.

But the abuse continued, according to their complaint, and in 2019 the parents submitted a 10-page report to Callanan detailing the additional bullying their son had suffered at the hands of Belcher and his teammates under Belcher’s alleged leadership. .

“Woburn High has made no substantial effort to reduce bullying,” they said.

The past few years have been turbulent for Woburn’s football program.Elise Amendola/Associated Press

Belcher, 60, has been known to many in the Woburn area since he was a three-sport star at nearby Stoneham High School in the late 1970s. 6-foot-4, 270 pounds and team co-captain under coach Jack Bicknell, snapping the ball to quarterback Doug Flutie.

In 1983, Belcher was selected by the Los Angeles Rams in the ninth round of the NFL Draft. The Rams released him in training camp before he was drafted by the Boston Breakers of the fledgling United States Football League. He played two seasons for the Breakers after moving to New Orleans and Portland.

Belcher began his high school coaching career as an assistant at Bishop Fenwick in 2001. Three years later, he became head coach at Bedford High School. In 13 seasons there, Belcher went 78-63 and was named Globe Coach of the Year in 2008, after guiding his team to a 10-2 record and the league title.

Callanan hired him in 2017 to succeed legendary Woburn manager Rocky Nelson and an alumnus who played in three of Belcher’s first four years at Woburn said: “My first impression of him was positive. We hadn’t won many games and I thought he could turn things around.

But, the former student said, he was quickly bothered by Belcher’s coaching methods, which he described as abusive. He said he saw Belcher regularly pitting players against each other during practices.

“When I first saw it I thought it was just a form of competition,” he said. “Then I saw him overflow in the locker room because it made the kids literally hate each other and fight off the pitch.”

Coaches are, by policy, held responsible for protecting student-athletes from any form of abuse. But former players and parents say the bullying has become routine under Belcher, who went 29-20 at Woburn. Belcher also serves as a substitute teacher at the school.

The player who initially hoped for Belcher said the team engaged in a ritual in 2019 in which one player each week would get jumped by teammates and hit with foam rollers.

“There was little to no supervision in the locker room,” he said. “No one ever came in and checked when things got loud or out of control.”

Last September, Johnathan Coucelos had just finished getting dressed in the freshman locker room when he was blown up by a dozen teammates, video footage shows. He was reportedly punched and beaten with water bottles, as well as an indecent assault.

Two other Woburn students reportedly accosted Coucelos later, he said. He said one hit him repeatedly in the school bathroom and the other walked into his Spanish class, grabbed him by the shirt and warned him not to. denounce. The student who caught him in the classroom, he said, was a former Woburn football player.


Bob Hohler can be reached at [email protected]

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