In Southern Aroostook, Decisions in Cyberspace Have Real World Consequences

by Jen Lynds

Happily, I grew up at a time just after the Polaroid camera was phasing out and prior to the digital camera phasing in. Back then, it was not common place for a teenager to have a camera at all, let alone with them at all times. Cell phone technology was in its infancy, and most were bulky designs that came in a bag and worked only when you plugged them into your cigarette lighter.

Because we lacked what are now common possessions, my friends and I likely evaded trouble more often. We did stupid things, of course, but did not document them with pictures. No one was on Facebook or MySpace or had a blog or a web page. We were of the “loose lips sink ships” generation. Most stupid things were just that unless they got back to an adult.

It seems to me a painful lesson that student athletes in RSU 50 in Stacyville are learning, and the repercussions have already been costly. Last month, a beloved and revered Southern Aroostook baseball coach and athletic director, Murray Putnam, was placed on paid leave. The administration has not divulged why, nor has Mr. Putnam. Since the coach has impacted so many lives and guided so many students in his 44 year tenure, people want to know why he was suddenly placed on leave.

The  complete story is not out yet, but most adults at a school board meeting on Monday evening implied that it involved inappropriate photos allegedly taken on a preseason baseball trip to Boston that were then posted on Facebook. Others said that the photos contained images of “possible hazing.”

Putnam is not suspected of any involvement but as head coach has oversight responsibilities over the team. Players involved in the incident reportedly have been disciplined.

John A. Doe, the interim superintendent, could not comment on the situation Tuesday, but said that the district has policies in place to cover all of the behavior spoken about at Monday’s meeting.

During that meeting, the bulk of the more than 60 people there seemed to support Putnam’s reinstatement, but the board did not make a decision on that. That means that Putnam will not be coaching the team when they battle Bangor Christian for the Eastern Maine Class D title at 3 p.m. on Wednesday, June 13.

Putnam will bring his legal counsel to the school board meeting on Monday at 6 p.m. at Southern Aroostook Community School in Dyer Brook, during which the board will meet in executive session, Doe said Tuesday.

During this week’s meeting, the speakers characterized the coach as someone of high moral character who taught students lessons about patience, sportsmanship, respect, honor and accountability. So it seems likely that if hazing indeed happened and he knew about it, he would step up and acknowledge it.

But people at the meeting seemed to indicate that if hazing was indeed involved, it happened out of view of the coach and without his knowledge. They also acknowledged how easy it is for teenagers to make poor decisions and advertise them on social networking sites without realizing the ramifications.

I was a student athlete all the way through school in Houlton and never saw any hazing going on, nor did I hear about student athletes being hazed. I did witness the older athletes being a bit harsh on the younger ones. I did see actions taken to let freshmen, for example, know that the older youth had been on the team longer and the newcomers had to prove themselves.  In soccer, the term “freshmen slaves” was common parlance. The menial chores, such as collecting all of the loose soccer balls after practice or dragging the big orange cooler full of water to the field, were often delegated to the “freshmen slaves.”

During Monday’s meeting, Frank Horton, who supported Putnam, said that his son was on the Boston trip.

“He did not hear about the situation [in question] until days later,” he said. “So I don’t think the coaches knew.”

He also wondered if the photos were really of hazing or just teenagers “roughhousing” or “being mischievous.” That is a good point.  The situation the photographer catches can be ambiguous unless you were there with him. You may see a picture of a girl smiling with tears in her eyes and think she’s reacting that way because she is proud to have won something, when in reality it was taken when someone told a funny story about a loved one at a funeral.

I don’t know how this will turn out, but I know people are upset about the situation. One cannot help but feel sorry for the students who allegedly took part in the incident in question and posted it online.

Behavior that may have lasted only a few minutes may end a 44 year career — a painful lesson that technology can both help and hinder.