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After Hartford girls soccer ends game early over sexual harassment, support pours in

Sophie Howe, center, and her Hartford soccer teammates listen to instruction before a practice drill at the Maxfield Sports Complex in Hartford, Vt., on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021. Hartford girls soccer, under the leadership of Head Coach Jeff Acker, walked off the field with six minutes remaining against Fair Haven Union High School last Thursday because of sexual harassment from the stands. Valley News/James M. Patterson. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to [email protected]

Editor’s Note: This story by Seth Tow first appeared in the Valley News on Oct. 14.

WHITE RIVER JUNCTION — As sexual harassment rained down from the Fair Haven Union High student section during a girls soccer game last week, Hartford Hurricanes players were taken aback. The vulgar taunts had started in the second half.

The game was competitive. Fair Haven led 2-0, with 20 minutes to play. When the Slaters scored their third goal, the Hartford players gathered and resolved to simply see the game out and fight until the final whistle.

But the comments intensified from there. The Hurricanes tried their best to ignore them, but they were in disbelief at what was being said.

“(We’ve) played games where you’re getting yelled at a little bit, and that’s kind of to be expected. You can block it out to some degree. But this was just a different level of stuff, to put it simply,” senior defender and team captain Katie Blood said in an interview this week. “I remember giving (senior midfielder) Maddie (Withington) a look, because I heard it at one point, and I looked at her, and it was a mutual, like, ‘We both know what’s going on, and what are we gonna do about it?’ ”

Over several minutes, the Fair Haven lead ballooned to 6-0; the harassment continuing with each goal. Head coach Jeff Acker said he thought the actions from the student section, located near Hartford’s defenders in the second half, directly led to the game getting out of hand.

Eventually, the Hartford player who had been bearing the brunt of the abuse took herself out of the game. Play restarted briefly before Acker ran on the field with six minutes remaining and told his team to pack up. (Acker said this week the score didn’t influence his decision, and he would have pulled his girls off the field even if they were winning.)

Players and coaches described the bus ride back to White River Junction as tense and uncomfortable.

Senior midfielder and captain Nora Knudsen noted that some her teammates weren’t aware of why they left the game early and that it took a while for everything to sink in.

Hartford soccer Head Coach Jeff Acker, middle, laughs with Beth Dobrich, left, and Olivia Chase, right, before they leave practice at the Maxfield Sports Complex in Hartford, Vt., on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021. When one of his players walked off the field after enduring harassing comments from the Fair Haven student section last Thursday, Acker made the decision for the team to walk off the field and end the game. “This is about how we treat female athletes and how we sexualize them,” he said. “We don’t do that to men.” Valley News/James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to [email protected]

With another match scheduled for Saturday, the team would’ve normally scheduled a light workout on Friday. Instead, Acker left the practice plan completely up to his players. He gave them the option of not exercising at all and gave them the time and space to talk about the Fair Haven game as a team.

“Most of practice was a conversation; it wasn’t actual soccer, although we did find a way to put it in there,” Blood said. “But it was, ‘What happened? What do we feel right now? It’s OK to not feel OK right now. And what are our next steps? How do we take this and use it as a positive, not only for our team but for other teams as well?’ ”

Home-field advantage

In the aftermath of the Fair Haven game, Blood and Knudsen felt embraced by their peers at school. Blood said that not everyone knew the details of what happened, but most people involved with Hartford athletics were aware, and word spread quickly.

Knudsen said the events sparked important conversations at the school about Hartford students’ own behavior at their home games and how they can learn from last week’s game.

Hartford’s athletic leadership council released a statement on social media on Saturday morning.

“Our student section will never ever be allowed to say the name or number of any player on the other team from this point forward. If you are heard talking to a player on the other team, you will be asked to leave,” the statement read.

Athletic director Jeff Moreno said this episode won’t impact the way the school enforces protocols and rules at Hurricanes home games. He said the school board made it clear when he started at Hartford six years ago that sportsmanship would be a priority, and it’s been an emphasis for him ever since.

Moreno said the rules are clear at Hartford games: Don’t talk to the opponent or the officials, and cheer positively for your classmates.

He said this year he’s seen a noticeable positive change in the Hartford student section’s behavior. He said that after years of “overstaffing events to make sure we have people there,” he thinks they’ve turned a corner.

“We’ve just been beating that drum for a while. And I think that we’ve seen the culture shift,” Moreno said. “It’s not always perfect. It’s not going to be perfect moving forward. But we try to make sure that our guests are treated as guests when they come to our venues and can feel, at the very least, safe competing while they’re here.”

Hartford Captain Nora Knudsen takes a shot on goal while gathering balls after practice at the Maxfield Sports Complex in Hartford, Vt., on Oct. 12, 2021. The Hurricanes, under the leadership of Head Coach Jeff Acker, walked off the field with six minutes remaining against Fair Haven Union High School last Thursday because of sexual harassment from the stands. Valley News/James M. Patterson. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to [email protected]

‘We had to focus on our girls team’

Community support poured in for the girls soccer team from around Vermont, as well. The players said they saw it all, from tweets to Instagram stories, and it meant a lot to them.

The situation posed a dilemma for Hartford’s boys soccer team, which was scheduled to play at Fair Haven the next day as their classmates were dealing with the fallout from their own game.

Some on the boys team, including junior captain Joey Beggs, were watching Thursday’s game on Fair Haven’s live stream. He saw Acker walk on the field and the game stop, but he didn’t know why until he texted one of the players after the game and heard what happened.

His teammates soon learned the details as well, and emotions were high as they discussed how it would impact their upcoming game with the Slaters. Some players were hesitant about playing the game at all.

Beggs and junior captain Nolan McMahon met with Moreno and head boys soccer coach Kevin Guilbault during school Friday to discuss a course of action.

“It was really tough for Nolan and I,” Beggs said. “Obviously, we want to go and play soccer. And we had to talk to our coach and be like, ‘Let’s take the soccer point of view out of it and forget about Fair Haven right now.’ We had to focus on our girls team and what we need to do to support them.

“This is something you’d never hear from Nolan and I, saying that we wouldn’t want to go play the game. But we genuinely thought we shouldn’t go down there.”

Moreno was surprised to hear that. He was pleased to see the boys team sticking up for the girls, but he counseled that they should be careful not to vilify Fair Haven over the incident, a point he felt strongly about.

He didn’t direct Beggs and McMahon to play or tell them how to feel, but Moreno talked with the boys about how they could stand by the girls while still playing the game.

They landed on a written statement to read over the public address system before the game. Beggs and McMahon wrote the statement, emphasizing that what happened to the Hartford girls was wrong, the importance of sportsmanship, humility and accountability. They conferred with Moreno on some of the content, and Moreno and an English teacher cleaned up the text.

Moreno then sent it to Fair Haven. He requested that the Slaters’ captains would stand with Beggs and McMahon while they spoke to the crowd, which they agreed to do. Fair Haven went on to win the contest, 2-0. Beggs said the Fair Haven crowd still directed some pointed comments at Hartford players on Friday, but he said it was all related to the play on the field.

Hartford soccer Head Coach Jeff Acker, second from left, talks with team members, from left, Madi D’Amico, Katie Blood, Nora Knudsen, and Sara White, at the end of their practice and team dinner at the Maxfield Sports Complex in Hartford, Vt., on Tuesday, Oct. 12, 2021. Assistant Coach Chris Kondi is at left. The Hurricanes walked off the field with six minutes remaining against Fair Haven Union High School last Thursday because of sexual harassment from the stands. Valley News/James M. Patterson. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to [email protected]

Moving forward

Slate Valley Unified School District superintendent Brooke Olsen-Farrell released a statement addressing the incident to Fair Haven’s Facebook page Thursday night, one week after the game.

“Our investigation scope was limited to the game tape, adults, chaperones, fans, school resource officer, administration, officials, and students,” the statement read. “The investigation found that there were inappropriate comments from some Fair Haven student fans such as ‘tuck in your shirt’, ‘you suck’, use of profanity, calling out opposing players by name and number, moaning and barking. The individuals who made those comments will be dealt with in accordance with our disciplinary procedures.”

Olsen-Farrell also apologized for the distress that the behavior caused any player, and said the district is working to make sure it won’t happen again.

Following their freeform Friday practice and discussion, the Hartford girls played against Otter Valley on Saturday at Maxfield Sports Complex, a 3-1 Hurricanes victory. The game felt different from the very beginning — Moreno said the Otters embraced the situation as soon as they stepped off the bus.

They, too, read a statement to the crowd over the public address system. Instead of announcing each team’s starters individually, the announcer introduced the teams as “a group of female athletes about to engage in a competitive game the right way.”

Moreno said the teams also held hands during the national anthem, which he hadn’t previously seen between opponents.

“At least from my perspective and I think probably Nora’s and our team’s, it was the most fun I’ve had in a soccer game in a while,” Blood said. “It wasn’t high stakes. It was perfect weather for a game; it was nice and cloudy and great temperature. And Otter Valley, it was a breath of fresh air. They were so loving of us. We were chatting with them throughout the game, and they did a great pregame thing with us. I just appreciated it.”

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