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Did Bacon Academy honestly have to cancel its football season?

It is understandable, in a society that thrives on litigiousness, for school systems and similar institutions in times of distress to practice the old "abundance of caution" thing, otherwise known as The Art Of Covering Thy Own Ascot. It's not necessarily borne of spinelessness, but because aggrieved parents with lawyers on speed dial can lurk around every corner.

Such is the case at Bacon Academy, where an alleged incident involving two athletic teams didn't merely end the football season early, but curiously morphed into a Title IX issue.

The two-minute drill version: Day sports editor Chuck Banning spoke to two parents at Bacon, both of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity. They confirmed that the alleged incident happened between the cheerleading team and members of the junior varsity football team following game at Waterford on Nov. 5. They said the two teams were sharing the bus to and from the game.

The two parents would not share details because there were conflicting reports about the alleged incidents, but both said they were informed in an email sent by Colchester Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey E. Burt that head coach Mark Farnsworth and his entire coaching staff were placed on paid administrative leave until further notice while the new allegations were investigated.

Burt wrote in an e-mail to The Day, "The District followed policies and regulations in relation to allegations of violations of Title IX. Title IX investigations have specific protocols that must be followed that significantly increase the length of the investigation. Also, as part of our standard protocol, we placed the staff members involved with one of these teams on paid administrative for the duration of the investigation.

"While the District has completed the initial investigation of certain allegations, district officials have learned of multiple additional allegations that must be investigated. Properly investigating these new allegations will require staff to remain on paid administrative leave until further notice. As a result, the remainder of the football season has been canceled."

I spoke to two others with more direct knowledge of what transpired on the bus. They alleged that certain individuals were looking at pornography on their phones, engaged in inappropriate conversations of a sexual nature and mimicked a sex act using football helmets.

There is no denying the seriousness of the allegations and the necessity of punishment if they are proven true. But I'm unclear how any of this rises to the level of a Title IX violation, the impetus to cancel the season for innocent varsity players.

Title IX, of the Education Amendments of 1972, protects people from discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance. It is fundamental and necessary, except that Title IX's scope is vast, esoteric, poorly explained and not easily interpreted.

New regulations on sexual harassment were adopted recently within Title IX law, part of which reads, "unwelcome conduct determined by a reasonable person to be so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it effectively denies a student equal access to the district's education program or activity."

Loosely translated: Did somebody on the bus believe the transgressions were "severe and pervasive" enough to imperil their futures in cheerleading, football, coaching or attending Bacon Academy in general?

I do not know that answer. But I do know the irony: In pursuing whether kids were robbed of opportunity, innocent football players were robbed of opportunity.

Title IX violations are about patterns and repeated behaviors that, by definition, grow to the level of "severe and pervasive." I cannot fathom how an incident on a bus could rise to such levels.

I'm also curious if the "multiple additional allegations" are directly related to Title IX or more examples of mindless behavior from teenagers whose hormones staged a coup d'état on their common sense. There is a difference.

The alleged offenders deserve punishment. But the alleged offenders here do not include the varsity football players and coaches who were miles away at the time and are guilty of nothing more than previous association with the alleged offenders.

To suggest this is a Title IX issue may indeed illustrate we could all use more education on the topic. But it also cheapens Title IX's more authentic purpose, which is to eradicate patterns and series of behaviors that have led to institutional disharmony.

Mr. Burt's decision to throw a net over this is understandable for all the aforementioned reasons in this "gotcha" society. The alleged behaviors of selected kids on that bus cannot go unpunished. But to punish the innocent with an overreaching interpretation of a federal law is a swing and a miss.

This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro


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