Originally published for The Sun Chronicle on May 10, 2017.
NORTH ATTLEBORO — An MIAA football official was responsible for text messages encouraging taunts against an Attleboro High School girls’ basketball player in February.
Public records released Wednesday from a North Attleboro school investigation revealed that John Engler admitted to sending a text message to a North Attleboro student, encouraging them to continue taunts of “traitor” against Attleboro basketball player Julia Strachan during a Feb. 20 Attleboro/North Attleboro girls’ basketball game.
Strachan, who lives in North Attleboro, transferred to Attleboro High at the beginning of her junior year after her father, Michael Strachan, took a football coaching job at AHS.
Engler is a North Attleboro resident and a football official with the Massachusetts Independent Football Officials Association, which provides referees and game officials for MIAA sanctioned events.
The MIAA holds strict rules against taunting — encouraging game officials to eject spectators or players from an arena after just a single warning.
But, officials failed to step in when North Attleboro students at the Feb. 20 game targeted 18-year-old Strachan with chants of “traitor” every time she touched the ball — a total of 14 times in the second half, DoubleACS footage of the game shows.
Michael Strachan, 49, said he lodged a formal complaint with the North Attleboro school district after a student told him North Attleboro coach and physical education teacher Jason Feid had allegedly sent a text to students encouraging the taunting.
Strachan pointed to footage from the game that shows Feid pulling out his phone during halftime, typing or looking at something on it, glancing across the bleachers to the student section and gesturing for students to check their phones.
But in closing the investigation last week, North Attleboro Superintendent Scott Holcomb said, “Based on the evidence collected, I do not have reason to believe that Mr. Feid sent the text in question.”
The Sun Chronicle filed a public records request with the school department for records pertaining to the investigation.
Those records, released Wednesday in a redacted form to protect the privacy rights of students and staff, showed Engler was present during the interview of another unnamed individual when he confessed to sending a text message encouraging students to “keep the chant going.”
“Mr. Engler (redacted) stated that he had sent the text (redacted),” an interview narrative from March 8 reads. “He also wrote that (redacted) had said to (redacted) that the chant was working — it was in her head so keep it going.”
Engler also said the text had been deleted and that “he knew it was wrong and that he got caught up in the game,” the records show. But when North Attleboro officials suggested the man apologize to the Strachans on March 16, he declined.
When reached by The Sun Chronicle Wednesday, Engler apologized for the incident but said he did not equate the chants to taunts.
“In response to the incident referred to at the February 20 Attleboro/North Attleboro basketball game, my message was simply trying to encourage the North Attleboro student body to continue their cheering (as it seemed to be working) as North Attleboro began to mount a comeback during the game,” he said in an email statement. “At no time did I encourage the use of the word ‘traitor’ nor did I feel the cheering rose to the level of taunting.
“Apparently the administration personnel from either school in attendance at the game did not feel that this was taunting either, as they heard it but took no action to stop the cheering. To the extent that the message was misinterpreted, caused any individual to feel targeted, and resulted in this controversy, I am sincerely apologetic.”
Other students and staff members interviewed during the investigation confirmed the text said versions of “the chant is working, keep it up.” But they could not say for fact who the text message came from.
Further records show North Attleboro officials pressed Engler when his early statements did not match up to DoubleACS footage of the event. Another interview dated March 13 shows school officials concerned that they did not see Engler texting on the game footage. Engler responded that he could not pinpoint the time he sent the text.
School officials warned Engler that a potential lawsuit could subpoena his phone records, and that there was a rumor another adult had sent the text, but Engler again said he sent the text message.
The records also show how early school officials learned of the incident. North Attleboro Athletic Director Kurt Kummer heard about the incident the night of, and by Feb. 22, Holcomb sent a letter of apology to Attleboro High School Principal Bill Runey.
“North Attleboro takes great pride in upholding the MIAA tenants that govern sporting events, and recognize this incident as extremely disappointing,” he wrote. “The deep and long-standing tradition of rivalry between North Attleborough and Attleboro is something we treasure. However, rivalries do not give people the right to taunt.
“I deeply regret this incident took place and hope that time will heal the wounds caused by these actions.”
Holcomb said Wednesday that although the investigation did not support Strachan’s claims against Feid, he did not believe Strachan’s claims were in bad faith.
“Michael Strachan was not unfounded in bringing this claim forward, and anyone who says otherwise does not know the full facts of the case,” he said. “Taunting should never be tolerated and I hope this investigation brings the Strachans some of the answers they were looking for.”
North Attleboro Assistant Superintendent Lori McEwen also praised Strachan for his “advocacy on (his) daughter’s behalf” in a letter late March.
“I want you to know that this event has caused us to review our expectations of staff and students and to provide greater clarity for behavioral expectations,” she wrote.