CROMWELL >> Cromwell Superintendent of Schools Paula Talty announced on Tuesday that head football coach Chris Eckert has been placed on a one-week unpaid suspension following the investigation of a hazing incident within the Panthers program.
Eckert, who has been on paid administrative leave since a complaint was made to the Cromwell police on Aug. 25, can return to the team on Sept. 15.
“Coach Eckert was negligent in his supervision of student athletes in the locker room,” Talty said during a press conference.
“He cooperated fully with our investigation and he has taken full responsibility for his failure to provide appropriate supervision in this case. After carefully reviewing the situation with Coach Eckert, we are confident that he will exercise appropriate supervision in the future.”
A 16-year-old member of the Cromwell/Portland football team was arrested Aug. 26 and charged with breach of peace and hazing after the parents of two freshmen players reported to authorities that their sons had been struck with a belt in the locker room.
Cromwell Police Chief Capt. Denise LaMontagne told the press Thursday her department’s case had been closed.
“Due to conflicting statements, we were unable to establish probable cause to charge any other team members,” she said.
The case has been referred to Juvenile Court, “which can do many things” in terms of imposing penalties, Lamontagne said.
Under state law, a conviction for hazing can result in a fine of up to $1,000, Lamontagne said.
That same day, the state Department of Children and Families announced staff are looking into the allegations, according to a written release from DCF spokesman Gary Kleeblatt. “Our involvement commenced after a report was received from school officials about the alleged incidents and our investigation is in the preliminary stages.”
During their investigation, police said they learned the lights were turned off in the locker room and four players were struck.
“We found out about these allegations through the Cromwell police department,” Talty said. “The minute we found out we consulted with Coach Eckert and he was on board immediately. He found out through us.”
Last week, in a letter to his staff and parents, Portland Superintendent of Schools Philip B. O’Reilly wrote the allegations involve several underclassmen from both Portland and Cromwell who may have been targets.
He said Portland High School Principal Kathyrn Lawson and Athletic Director Chris Serra have begun to conduct their own investigation with Portland’s football athletes.
“The safety of our children is the district’s foremost concern and there are many policies and procedures in place to ensure the well-being of our children,” Talty said. “Supervision is to be provided to students at all times when the students are n campus or at sporting events or at practices.”
Portland joined Cromwell this season to form a cooperative football team and many of the Panthers attended Tuesday’s press conference in a strong showing of support for Eckert.
“It’s very unfortunate that coach is getting held responsible for all of this,” Panthers co-captain Ethan Roy said. “He’s a very good man, coach and teacher. We idolize him and all love him. He always wants the best for us.”
Eckert, 33, was the head football coach at Wilby High School in Waterbury before replacing Lou Bronk as Cromwell football coach in 2011. He teaches biology/anatomy and physiology at Cromwell high.
“We’re here to back him up on this and let everybody know he is a good person,” Panthers co-captain Mayze James said. “I grew up without a father and he is that first male role model that I have that I can go talk to about anything personal. He will be missed in that first game.”
Cromwell/Portland opens its season this Saturday in Durham against Coginchaug. Panthers assistant coaches John Bozzi and Tom Eckert will be handling the coaching duties.
Roy and James, speaking for the entire football team, also requested a meeting with Talty.
“We want to apologize on behalf of everybody on the team,” Roy said. “We are sorry about the events that happened in the locker room. We’re sorry any of this came in our community and caused embarrassment of it. It’s been hard on everybody here.”
Eckert guided Cromwell to the Class S championship in 2011. The Panthers lost to Holy-Cross-Waterbury, 34-27. Eckert’s teams have gone 28-17 in his four seasons.
“I can’t comment on anything right now,” Eckert said when contacted by telephone.
“I want to thank Coach Eckert for his honesty and professionalism during the course of this investigation,” Talty added. “It was clear to the administration that he was truly sorry for what transpired on that date and he is passionate about his desire to continue to move the football program forward.”