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SENIOR'S TAUNTING OF FRESHMAN INVESTIGATED

He was a freshman, 90 pounds soaking wet. His tormentor was a senior.

Week after week, the senior at Depew High School repeatedly danced naked in front of the freshman in the swim team locker room, sometimes grabbing at him, taunting him -- and more.

One of the freshman's friends told the swim coach. That didn't work. The friend then went to the principal. Nothing changed.

Months later, when the parents heard there was a problem, they talked to their son. They called their lawyer, who told them to contact the police.

What the police uncovered, according to statements contained in court documents, was worse than the parents imagined.

Their son was not only routinely harassed in the swimming pool area by the senior, but sexual overtones were a constant theme. He was trapped in a corner while the senior simulated a sex act; he was pinned down and licked on his chest during another. The freshman was also left bound and gagged once in the band room, according to court records.

The freshman's family has now moved to another district. The senior pleaded guilty to harassment in village court last December, paid a $165 fine and is now attending a local college with hopes of going into law enforcement.

But the case is still unsettling to the freshman's parents, who recently asked the School Board to investigate. They don't want any other students to suffer as their son did.

The School Board has agreed to investigate.

"I thought they cared for your child, for their well-being," the mother said. "This makes me think I'm way off base. I'm wrong."

Also upset is District Attorney Frank J. Clark, who investigated and now blasts the school district for letting the incident go as far as it did.

"The school needs to step up to its responsibilities," he said. "I think the school should change its supervision of its kids. Certainly, it should do something to ensure this victim is the last one."

If the case had not gone through the court system so quickly, he said, his office would have pushed for "counseling in a serious way" for the senior.

"To snap a towel at a boy's rear end is common locker room behavior," Clark said. "But this was clearly inappropriate."

The senior's parents and their attorney say the case was exaggerated.

The students involved "have all moved on now," the parents said in a statement released by their lawyer.

"We had hoped for a healing process but it seems people want to persevere in investigating and trying to make something of what appeared to be nothing at the time."

"It was a high school prank, albeit an inappropriate and stupid one," added attorney Gregory Perla, who represented the senior. "It was not uncommon behavior, humping one another. Boys act stupid like that."

In fact, Perla said the only reason he advised the teenager to plead guilty was to "spare him a public spectacle."

"I'm suggesting much of it was hyperbole," Perla said of the accusations.

The Buffalo News has withheld the names of the students involved because of their status as minors.

According to court records, the harassment began just after the 2001 swim season started, with the popular senior on many occasions over the next few months taunting the freshman, who was the smallest and youngest member of the team.

With other teammates watching and laughing along with the senior, the freshman at times laughed too -- although he started avoiding the team socially, court documents say. At other times, he tried to fight back, but eventually lost heart.

"It was hopeless," his friend said.

At least three district personnel knew of harassment directed at the freshman, according to the statements, in court documents, that police obtained from the freshman and other classmates.

In December, court records show, one of the freshman's teammates went to the swim coach, Joseph C. Franjoine, for help. The coach held a meeting and told the team what was happening was inappropriate.

The harassment slowed but didn't stop. So the friend told Principal Edward Balaban "in graphic terms" what was occurring.

The principal seemed "taken aback" when he learned the identity of the senior, who was regarded as a model student, one of the students told police. Balaban said he would handle it. The friend never saw a change, court records indicate.

In fact, instead of stopping, the harassment changed locations.

In February, the freshman was pinned to the floor of the instrument room by two students while the senior sexually harassed him.

George J. Kroetsch, the band teacher, walked in on them.

"Cut it out guys. We have work to do," he said, and then left, according to court papers.

A couple of months later, the freshman was getting his band instrument when the senior snuck up behind him. He tied the freshman up with duct tape and left him there, bound and gagged.

The freshman was discovered and cut loose by another student, who then went to Kroetsch's office to report it, according to court statements.

Contacted by The News, the school principal and band coach referred all questions to Superintendent Robert F. DeFilippo. The swim coach didn't return calls.

DeFilippo said he wasn't aware of the incident until approached by the freshman's parents earlier this spring.

"Certainly we want to find out what happened," he said.

e-mail: ncervantes@buffnews.com

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