Woburn school officials were aware of alleged bullying in the high school football program for several years before 14-year-old freshman Johnathan Coucelos was attacked by a swarm of teammates in the locker room last fall, according to court records and interviews with former players and parents.
On Sept. 25, 2018, three years to the day before the Coucelos incident, a 15-year-old Woburn player was kicked so hard in the head by a teammate that he stumbled, dazed, from the practice field and vomited, he stated in a civil case pending before the state Supreme Judicial Court.
The player alleges Woburn head coach Jack Belcher instigated the kick by encouraging older teammates to — in Belcher’s words — “toughen up” younger ones. His complaint says Belcher witnessed the incident but reprimanded neither the assailant nor numerous players who taunted the alleged victim with vulgarities, insinuating he was “soft.”
Instead, Belcher instructed the traumatized player to return to the field for 35 more minutes of contact drills, his complaint states. The student said he felt ill and experienced a lingering headache, but he did not seek treatment from the team athletic trainer for fear of being further characterized as weak.
What’s more, the boy and his parents allege, school authorities failed to correct the abusive nature of Belcher’s coaching after they reported the incident.
Now, five years into Belcher’s coaching career at Woburn, the culture of his program and the school district’s supervision of the former Boston College football standout are under scrutiny.
“They have known for years they have a bully coaching our kids and they haven’t done anything to stop him,” Kevin Coucelos, Johnathan’s father, said. “He should have been fired.”
The Globe asked Belcher and other school officials to comment. In response, Woburn school superintendent Matt Crowley issued a statement that said, “I was informed by the High School administration that there was one allegation of bullying made against Coach Jack Belcher. It is my understanding that the allegation was made in 2019 and that the High School administration promptly investigated the allegation in accordance with our bullying prevention policy and procedure, and that it was not substantiated. To my knowledge, there have been no other bullying allegations made to the administration regarding this individual.”
Crowley did not provide details of the 2019 allegation.
The Globe is not identifying the player who alleges he was kicked in the head because a Middlesex Superior Court judge sealed the case in October, citing student privacy concerns. A hearing is scheduled before the Supreme Judicial Court in April on the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association’s appeal of a lower court injunction that permitted the former Woburn player to compete this year for another MIAA school’s football and basketball teams after the MIAA denied his waiver request for a fifth year of eligibility.
The former Woburn player asserted the waiver was warranted in part because of the trauma he allegedly endured in Belcher’s program. His new school joined in seeking the waiver and injunction.
Crowley, in a letter to the community this month, said the district has retained an outside law firm to conduct a Title IX investigation of the Coucelos incident, which will be followed by an administrative review and policy analysis by a separate outside agency. The federal Title IX law protects students against many forms of discrimination and violence, including bullying and hazing.
Crowley said in his most recent statement to the Globe that the school district also “will make certain that the investigators are aware of this past, unsubstantiated allegation regarding Coach Belcher to ensure that they are provided with any and all context necessary for 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 locker room attack and two subsequent incidents in which Johnathan was the alleged victim. One football player was accused of indecent assault for allegedly yanking down 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 permitted three of the alleged assailants, including the player facing a possible indecent assault charge, to remain on the football team through a prestigious Thanksgiving week game at Fenway Park.
“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 on the team.”
Wilson said he wasn’t surprised by news of bullying in Belcher’s program. While the coach generally treated his son relatively well because he was one of the team’s better players — 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 happen when you pit players against each other like he does,” Wilson said.
Student leaders of the Woburn team took a stand in recent days supporting Belcher. Ten football captains — six seniors and four juniors — circulated a letter to news outlets, saying they were not trying “to minimize any allegations that are being investigated by the proper people.”
“In fact, we all condemn bullying of any kind,” the captains wrote. “We are strictly responding to how the integrity of the team, the leadership of the athletic department and football program is unfairly under attack in the community.”
They stated, “Head Coach Jack Belcher has always given us nothing short of his undivided attention and passion for his job as our coach and leader. He instills hard work, with strict rules, respect for team members and respect for adults at all times. He is a good person that cares tremendously for us.”
A parent who asked not to be identified said her son, who graduated in 2021, was bullied on the practice field, in the locker room, and elsewhere in the school by his football teammates. In the most disturbing incident, the parent said, her 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 weaker.
“I told Belcher he’s an adult bully and shouldn’t be coaching anybody’s kids,” the parent said. “I also told the principal, who didn’t stop him.”
Parents of the boy who allegedly was kicked in 2018 also faulted the school administration. They stated in their civil complaint that they reported the incident to the principal, Jessica Callanan, soon after it occurred. Four days later, they stated, Callanan told them she had addressed the issue, without explaining how.
But the abuse continued, according to their complaint, and in 2019 the parents submitted a 10-page report to Callanan detailing additional bullying their son had endured from Belcher and from his teammates at Belcher’s alleged direction.
“Woburn High made no substantive efforts to curtail the bullying,” they stated.
Belcher, 60, has been familiar to many in the Woburn area since he was a three-sport star at neighboring Stoneham High School in the late 1970s. At BC, he was a 6-foot-4-inch, 270-pound football center and team cocaptain 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 they moved to New Orleans and Portland.
Belcher started his high school coaching career as an assistant at Bishop Fenwick in 2001. Three years later, he became the head coach at Bedford High School. In 13 seasons there, Belcher went 78-63 and was named the Globe’s 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 Woburn’s legendary coach, Rocky Nelson, and a former student who played in three of Belcher’s first four years at Woburn said, “My first impression of him was positive. We hadn’t been winning a lot of games and I thought he might turn things around.”
But, the former student said, he soon became disturbed by Belcher’s coaching methods, which he described as abusive. He said he witnessed Belcher routinely pit players against each other during practice.
“When I first saw it, I thought it was just a form of competition,” he said. “Then I saw it boil over into the locker room because it caused kids to literally hate each other and fight off the field.”
Coaches are, by policy, considered responsible for safeguarding student-athletes against any form of abuse. But former players and parents allege bullying became routine under Belcher, who has posted a 29-20 record at Woburn. Belcher also serves as a substitute teacher in the school.
The player who was initially hopeful about Belcher said the team engaged in a ritual in 2019 in which one player each week got jumped by his teammates and whacked 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 hand.”
Last September, Johnathan Coucelos had just finished dressing in the freshman locker room when he got jumped by about a dozen teammates, a video recording shows. He allegedly was punched and struck with water bottles, as well as being indecently assaulted.
Two other Woburn students allegedly accosted Coucelos later, he said. He said one punched him several times in a school bathroom, and the other entered his Spanish classroom, grabbed him by the shirt, and warned him not to snitch. The student who grabbed him in the classroom, he said, was a former Woburn football player.
Bob Hohler can be reached at robert.hohler@globe.com.
Digital Access
Home Delivery
Gift Subscriptions
Log In
Manage My Account
Customer Service
Help & FAQs
Staff List
View the ePaper
Order Back Issues
News in Education
Search the Archives
Privacy Policy
Terms of Service
Terms of Purchase
Work at Boston Globe Media


By faress

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.