Two high school soccer coaches who lost their jobs and reputations in a hazing scandal in the northwest suburbs two years ago have won a key victory in their quest to clear their names.
The Illinois Department of Children and Family Services substantiated claims of abuse and neglect in 2013 against Maine West High School boys’ soccer coaches Michael Divincenzo and Emilio Rodriguez.
But an administrative law judge reversed that finding last month, the Chicago Sun-Times has learned. The judge ruled that DCFS failed to meet its burden of proof; the abuse allegations, the judge ruled, could not be substantiated and should be removed from the state’s central register.
Rodriguez’s lawyer, Dan Hofmann, said, “I was certainly very happy that justice was served” and DCFS’ previous finding was overturned.Divincenzo’s lawyers also applauded the ruling.“To throw the two coaches under the bus to take the heat off the school was just absolutely wrong,” Tom Breen, an attorney for Divincenzo, said.
In addition to losing his job, Divincenzo faced criminal charges over claims that he sanctioned a hazing culture in which members of the Maine West boys’ soccer team in Des Plaines sexually abused their younger teammates by sodomizing them with fingers and sticks.
A judge found Divincenzo, the varsity team’s former head coach, not guilty at trial in January 2014. In that trial, prosecutors were unable to prove their case “beyond a reasonable doubt” — the standard in a criminal trial.
Before the administrative law judge earlier this year, DCFS faced a lower burden of proof — “preponderance of the evidence,” meaning simply that the judge had to decide that a majority of the evidence favored DCFS. Even so, the agency still could not make its case.
A separate civil lawsuit against the school district, the school’s principal and the coaches is still pending. Angela Kurtz, of Romanucci & Blandin, the firm that filed the lawsuit, said in a statement the firm was disappointed to learn the DCFS finding was overturned.
“The evidence presented around the events in question clearly supports DCFS’ prior finding that sexual and physical assaults did indeed occur under the supervision of both coaches at Maine West High School,” Kurtz said.
However, the judge that reviewed DCFS’ work — and transcripts from Divincenzo’s trial — wrote there was insufficient evidence that either Divincenzo or Rodriguez knew of the alleged hazing, condoned or encouraged it.
Further, the judge said there was evidence both men became angry and acted appropriately when they learned of the alleged hazing on Sept. 26, 2012, that touched off the scandal.
Mike Kujawa, Divincenzo’s civil attorney, said the alleged hazing amounted to “kids interacting with other kids.”
“It had nothing to do with the coaches,” Kujawa said.
Breen said Divincenzo has racked up more than $150,000 in legal fees because of the scandal, which Breen said was a “nightmare” for the coaches.
But Breen also said the finding gives Divincenzo a chance to return to teaching, if he decides to resume his career.
“I’m encouraging him to do it,” Breen said.
Contributing: Becky Schlikerman