Football Program Indicates Deeper Problems at MHS


Lauren Lamson

Following investigations into peer-to-peer harassment within the MHS football program, students, athletes, staff and families are conflicted over the integrity of the program and its values. Middleton High School is implementing different reporting tools for harassment and discrimination.

Lauren Lamson and Mawuenam Dossa

Four months have passed since the Middleton High School (MHS) administration received a report of sexual harassment in the football program. Within that time, head coach Jason Pertzborn resigned from his teaching and coaching positions at MHS, the Middleton Police Department completed an investigation and MHS sent the findings of their own investigation to an unbiased outside party for review. 

The investigation has divided MHS students and families over the quality and integrity of the football program as they wrestle with what expectations should be set on its athletes, whom to hold responsible and how to move forward. To confound the issue, students, staff and families have been left to wonder about the details of the misconduct while the investigation remains confidential. 

In a meeting with the football program on Friday, Feb. 24, a month after the media broke the news of the investigation, Athletic Directors Jamie Sims and Bradley Crandell and MHS Principal Peggy Shoemaker presented about athletic department values and opened a discussion between athletes. Over one hundred football players attended. The team emphasized solidarity, calling on the program mantra, “we are one,” and asking their teammates to stick together and refrain from finger pointing. 

The first few months after Pertzborn’s resignation were “hard on some members of the football team,” according to Gabe Passini, a junior in the program. 

Throughout the off season, the team works out three mornings a week, but players noticed a significant decline in attendance starting in February. The absence of several members of the coaching staff made it difficult to remain optimistic. Brad Rogeberg, a prominent assistant coach and physical education teacher at MHS, stepped down from his coaching position earlier this year. 

“The coaches at Middleton have been great role models for us,” said KJ Peterson, a junior on the football team. “I have learned to have a strong work ethic and how to be a good teammate.” Losing them without clear communication about what was going on was difficult.

On March 16, the MHS football program’s Facebook page posted in response to a rumor that Rogeberg had resigned from his assistant coaching position. Rogeberg has resigned from coaching, but he remains a physical education teacher at MHS.

The MHS football program’s March 16 Facebook post.

“Sending out support to Brad Rogeberg & Jason Pertzborn,” the post read. “Very sad, frustrating, not right. They devoted their lives to helping our children.” The post was taken down later that day. 

This sentiment of support amidst accusations towards the staff and program trickles down to the family level, where some parents have expressed frustration over the school’s response.  

Right now I am concerned about the lack of adult leadership for the football program,” said Kathy Peterson, parent of KJ Peterson. “The sudden loss, without replacement, of coaching staff has had a negative impact on the football players.” Kathy has seen two children through a combined seven years in the MHS program and called it “a joy to participate in.” 

“The camaraderie of the boys, the parents, and the students who show up to watch every game was unparallelled,” Kathy said. “It is my sincere hope that it is not too late to recoup that joy.”

But many outside MHS football, and even within it, wonder about the program’s integrity in the wake of the investigation. The February police report detailing harassment that took place in the MHS locker rooms was graphic and unsettling. 

“The thing that I found most disturbing about it was that it mentioned this has been going on for a long time,” said a senior who is not in football and wished to remain anonymous. “It seems like there is a really toxic culture that’s been brewing.”

Football players did report incidents of less serious harassment to The Cardinal Chronicle, such as when players would take their teammates’ towels from them after showering. Many football players reported that MHS football has a tradition of hazing, which is also practiced by other sports at MHS. Several players claim it is harmless. However, hazing contributes to a culture of disregard around personal rights, blurring the set of standards of respect for other players. In the context of the events described in the police report, MHS administration has conducted a series of events to address hazing, bullying and harassment within the student body. 

The mantra of the administration is “it starts with one.” 

“Regarding bullying, or harassment, it starts with one joke. One name calling,” Shoemaker said. “What happens with that, it spreads then to this person [who] shares it, and this person shares it, and this person shares it. And before you know it, it has become harassment.” 

Shoemaker and the athletic directors, Sims and Crandell, were not involved in the investigation because of their bias toward players and members of the school. In February, Sims stated that regardless of the result of the investigation, his goal in the situation was restoration for the program, the victims and the perpetrators.

MHS football has found two interim coaches for the 2023 season, MHS teachers Tim Simon and Joe Poehls, who hope to lead the team in a positive direction.

Many members of the football team were not involved in the bullying described in the report, either because they removed themselves from the situation by showering in different locker rooms or because they were unaware of it entirely. Regardless, when the news of the harassment broke, the entire team was targeted on social media with posts that said things like “put them in prison” and compiled a list of names they called rapists. 

“We are now viewed as a program that fosters a ‘negative culture’ and nothing, in my opinion, could be further from the truth,” said Aimee Passini, who has three sons in the program.

“The people who want to change the culture or call it negative must not know our program very well,” said Avery Passini, Aimee’s son and a senior on the team. “Out of 100 guys 99 will say being in football was one of their best high school experiences. During the season you’re family and there’s nothing better.” 

Some teammates had different experiences. A football player who wished to remain anonymous stated that he was only on the team because he liked the game, and he had to tolerate the culture of the group so that he could play.

“I just wanted to be a part of something and seeing that football is the coolest sport in the USA I thought I’d join,” he said. Beyond the sport, he was unenthusiastic about the positive impacts of the program’s culture and even avoided interactions with certain teammates. 

Football players have been hesitant to talk to the media, including The Cardinal Chronicle, about football culture in general, with many citing fears of repercussions from fellow teammates should they share information putting the team or its players in a bad light. 

The MHS administration has already begun to implement a “systemic approach to bullying and harassing” where reporting acts of discrimination is promoted and supported to ensure that students feel safe at school. 

“It’s bigger than the football program,” said Shoemaker. “We have room to grow as a building in how we treat each other… We are going to be much bolder with consequences. We are going to have different reporting tools, because one thing in meeting with different victims of hate speech has been kids thinking nothing’s going to be done.”

The football investigation brought attention to a pattern of bullying and discrimination within MHS and the school district, and at MHS clubs have played a large role in starting the conversations about discrimination in the community. Student Senate sponsored a “respect roundtable” during ASR on May 17 where students discussed discrimination in the school and brainstormed strategies to address the negative culture percolating at MHS. On May 23 and 25, freshman, sophomore and junior students each attended an anti-bullying and anti-hate speech seminar during advisory. 

MHS has a long way to go, but Shoemaker acknowledged that without the events that transpired on the football team this year, conversations may not have occurred that she believes will lead the school toward being a safe space for all. She is committed to supporting students and fostering a community that takes bullying and discrimination more seriously.

“I find it heartbreaking anytime a kid does not feel safe in our school,” Shoemaker said. “Doesn’t everyone deserve to feel safe? … Shouldn’t they feel safe to walk in the door in their own identity and feel like that is going to be honored?”