I should be more excited about March Madness, Providence College’s seventh visit to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament under coach Ed Cooley even though the Friars lost in the second round, URI’s second consecutive trip to the Women’s NIT, and Rhode Island College’s first appearance in the women’s Division III Final Four.

I should celebrate the Rhode Island and Massachusetts high school champions crowned in recent days and weeks.

And I should be disappointed that Cooley is leaving PC for Georgetown.

But a disturbing trend that has troubled me for a while has tempered my enthusiasm — and disappointment —this time around.

Institutions and individuals we once trusted implicitly — schools, churches, town halls, teachers, coaches, administrators — are failing our children on and off playing fields at every level. Sexual assault, sexual harassment, bullying, hazing — they all still occur with too much frequency.

The latest in Rhode Island involves a male staffer at Westerly High School who exhibited “concerning behavior” toward a female student, according to a letter Superintendent Mark Garceau sent to Westerly families earlier this month. The man was banned from the school campus, and Westerly police and the Rhode Island Attorney General’s office were notified. 

Individual cases like this usually stand out for a day or two and then disappear behind the headlines of the next news cycle. But listed together like a lineup, they become stunning. Equally stunning is the response from officialdom.

Consider these incidents in the last 16 months:

In North Kingstown, former boys basketball coach Aaron Thomas was charged with second-degree sexual assault and second-degree sexual molestation last summer after multiple complaints about his unusual practice of fat testing athletes while they were naked in a closet in his office at North Kingstown High School. Several investigations preceded his arraignment. He had allegedly conducted the tests for 20 years.

Thomas pleaded innocent and is awaiting trial. His next hearing in Washington County Superior Court is scheduled for April 6.

Also in North Kingstown, the U.S. Attorney’s office has investigated a Davisville Middle School teacher-coach in response to complaints that he verbally abused students and stalked and sexually harassed girls. Amanda Milkovits of the Boston Globe, who also reported on the Thomas case, wrote that several seventh-grade boys thought the teacher was being a “creep” toward girls in their class and began logging his behavior. The teacher was placed on leave last April after allegations that he had stalked a pre-teen middle school girl. One boy’s mother then sent the log to investigators.

Are you kidding? It took middle school boys tracking the creepy behavior of a teacher to protect their female classmates?

Thanks to excellent reporting by the Boston Globe’s Bob Hohler, we learned that in Danvers, Mass., the boys hockey team was under intense scrutiny and criticism for hazing incidents. Accusations included homophobia, racism, and antisemitism.

In Woburn, Mass., the high-school football coach was accused of fostering an atmosphere of bullying — pitting stronger upperclassmen against weaker underclassmen. Police filed charges against several players.

According to a Globe story, correctional officers for decades assaulted, beat and raped residents of the New Hampshire juvenile detention facility in Manchester. Five hundred former residents have implicated 150 former staffers in cases of abuse. Few officials have been held accountable. 

And let’s not forget the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church.

Nationally, abuse in sports has been just as horrible. Consider the following:

   ●   Last fall, a report commissioned by U.S. Soccer revealed years of verbal and sexual abuse by coaches in the National Women’s Soccer League and the failure of owners, administrators and coaches at the highest levels of the sport to respond to years of complaints.                      

●     In Ann Arbor, Mich., officials at the University of Michigan agreed in January 2022 to a $490-million settlement in a sexual abuse lawsuit involving the university’s longtime head of University Health Service, who also was the team physician for Michigan athletics. Dr. Robert E. Anderson worked at Michigan for 37 years — from 1966 to 2003. He died in 2008.

●     In Sumter County, Florida, Larry Nasser is serving 60 years in a federal penitentiary for abusing teen-aged girls while serving as national medical coordinator for USA Gymnastics from 1996 to 2014. He also worked as an assistant professor at Michigan State University’s College of Human Medicine.

●     In Somerset Township, Pa., Jerry Sandusky, a former longtime defensive coordinator at Penn State, is serving at least 30 years at the minimum security Laurel Highlands state prison after being convicted in 2012 of 45 counts of child sex abuse. His actions and the university’s response toppled president Graham Spier, vice president Gary Schultz, athletics director Tim Curley and the iconic football coach Joe Paterno.

●    In South Africa in 2015, tennis coach and former doubles star Bob Hewitt was convicted of raping girls as young as 12 while he was coaching them. Among his victims was Heather Crowe of West Newbury, Mass. She was 14 when he assaulted her in 1975. She recovered and played professional tennis. Hewitt received a six-year prison sentence and was paroled in 2020. The International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport suspended him in 2012 after a report in the Boston Globe and stripped him of his Hall of Fame membership in 2016.

The victims in all these cases? Children. Adolescents. Young adults. Gymnasts, football players, altar boys. Powerless girls and boys deceived and violated by pedophiles and dismissed by authorities. Children, and their families, failed by institutions and people we used to trust.

How do such atrocities occur year after year after year? I sought answers from two veteran educators.

“Coaches have so much power, not only over players but over parents. Parents are afraid to offend the coach and how that might affect their player,” Richard Lawrence told me. He is in his 54th year as a teacher at Mount St. Charles Academy in Woonsocket. He also coached and served as athletics director until recently.

“As educators and administrators we need to be so vigilant,” he said. “As athletics director my greatest responsibility was to educate coaches and athletes about respectful behaviors. How we play the game matters. Respectful behaviors are to be valued. Do coaches always want to hear it? No, they don’t. It’s really hard, but you have to take responsibility. No stone can be unturned.”

Lawrence added: “Bullying is part of human nature. As soon as it comes up, you have to deal with it. That’s tough stuff.”

Education, he stressed, is the key to everything, especially the key to respect.

“Education is the cure for all these kinds of bad behavior,” he said.

Mike Lunney is the executive director of the Rhode Island Interscholastic League and formerly athletics director and boys basketball coach at Portsmouth High School. He grew up in Bristol, was a high-school basketball star and played at the University of New Hampshire.

Lunney agrees that education and training are part of the process and said the Interscholastic League is constantly updating its policies and procedures. As far as sexual harassment is concerned, though, “I don’t know if training and education can change that,” he said.

High school athletics directors play a critical role in dealing with bullying, hazing and the old school coaching mentality, Lunney added.

“Being aware is the first thing. Managing personalities is a big part of the job. You have to deal with administrators, coaches, parents in a certain way. I think we have a lot of tools in place that can help, but it all comes back to awareness,” he said. 

It also comes back to response. Officials in North Kingstown allegedly were aware for years that Aaron Thomas conducted his fat tests while boys were partially or fully disrobed and that he did not follow standard testing practice. And they had been alerted to the behavior of the abusive Davisville Middle School teacher-coach but were slow to respond with appropriate measures.

Several examples indicate we might be inching in the right direction to safeguard our children.

Mark Garceau, the Westerly superintendent, moved and communicated quickly when he learned of the behavior of the Westerly High staffer toward the female student. 

In East Greenwich, superintendent Alexis Meyer and school committee chair Anne Musella disclosed in April of 2022 that volleyball coaches Justin Amaral and Donovan Baker were fired after a two-month investigation into their actions during the 2021 fall season. Baker, the assistant coach, allegedly tried to kiss one girl on the team, touched another on the thigh and sent sexually suggestive messages to other players. Amaral, the head coach, was let go because he did not take complaints about Baker seriously.

What else is being done to curb all this aberrant behavior? Congress authorized the U.S. Center for SafeSport in 2017 to protect athletes from abuse. The University of Rhode Island, like many colleges and universities, instituted a variety of safeguards that are described on the school’s website. Pam Shriver, the Hall of Fame tennis player, television analyst and coach, has advocated for strong protective measures in women’s tennis since revealing in 2022 that Don Candy, her coach when she was a teenager in the mid-1980s, sexually and emotionally abused her.

Also critically important, students, athletes and parents must continue to protest abusive behavior. Officials must take allegations seriously, investigate promptly, and prosecute when warranted. Reporters must continue to shine the light on inappropriate behavior. 

It’s the least we can do for our children. 

Mike Szostak can be reached at mszostak@ripr.org.