As their activity was rocked last year by a series of scandals, leaders at Drum Corps International at times seemed sluggish in response.
They delicately avoided in public statements naming a former Pennsylvania corps director accused of sexual misconduct. When the young members of a Wisconsin ensemble complained of poor conditions, they took weeks to suspend the corps, and even longer to announce the move. They chose to not discipline directors who knowingly hired people with sexual misconduct in their pasts.
But on Monday, Drum Corps International (DCI) showed it is capable of swift, decisive action.
Less than 24 hours after the executive director of a small New Mexico affiliate criticized leaders of two corps, his bid for membership in DCI’s more elite Open Class was put on ice. His infraction? Speaking “in a derogatory manner about another participating organization or about DCI,” in violation of DCI policy.
J. Spenser Lotz, who in 2016 founded the affiliate, Arsenal, resigned out of frustration, as the drum corps community on Wednesday voiced outrage over DCI’s decision.
“DCI is a brand, and they want to protect that brand identity. And I understand that,” Lotz, 23, said. “But at the same time, this censorship — which is what it is — is not good for the activity. If the leaders of the activity cannot speak out against actions by the other leaders, and everyone is supposed to toe the party line and let DCI control the message, change becomes difficult, if not impossible.”
The controversy surrounding DCI’s punishment of Arsenal is only the latest in what is nearing to be a year of ongoing turmoil for drum corps, an activity that draws in thousands of young musicians and dancers each year.
In April, the Inquirer and Daily News brought to light sexual misconduct allegations against George Hopkins, then director of Allentown’s Cadets drum corps. The story sparked widespread calls for changes to better protect participants. Most recently, the newspapers showed how flaws in the activity’s hiring practices resulted in nearly half of the activity’s World Class corps having employed teachers previously disciplined for misconduct with their students.
The fallout continued last week with the announcement that two corps highlighted in the story would not participate in this year’s summer tour. One, Pioneer, had its membership revoked amid allegations that its corps director knowingly hired a registered sex offender. The other, Portland’s Oregon Crusaders, is taking a voluntary hiatus after participation dropped in the wake of revelations that an instructor had sexually harassed female members over the course of nearly a decade.
Those announcements came during the activity’s recent annual meeting in Indianapolis, attended by more than 350 members of the drum corps community. Lotz was among them.
He said that on his flight home Sunday, his mind turned to the members of Pioneer and the Oregon Crusaders, many who would be without a place to march this summer. He wrote a short message, inviting them to join Arsenal and even offering discounted membership fees based on experience. “You are welcome in the Arsenal family,” he said.
“As students,” he added, in the portion of the note that riled drum corps leaders, “you placed your trust in adults and leaders who you believed worked in your best interest. These adults violated that trust and placed you in harm’s way, which is inexcusable. We, as directors and educators, demand that you give your all and work your hardest, and it is shameful that there are so many among us who do not likewise give their all to keep you healthy, happy and safe.”
Lotz posted the message on Reddit — a popular forum for drum corps fans — late Sunday.
Monday afternoon, he received an email from David Eddleman, coordinator of DCI’s Open Class. In the email, which Lotz provided to a reporter, Eddleman said DCI’s CEO brought the post to his attention and decided “the violation requires that your application for Open Class be suspended.”
That CEO, Dan Acheson, declined to speak with a reporter for this story. In a statement Wednesday, the organization confirmed that Lotz’s post violated DCI’s media policy and said Lotz was given a chance to “correct the issue.” When he did not, DCI said, the corps’ bid for Open Class was suspended.
Lotz said he was offered no such chance. He said he first heard from DCI officials when Eddleman emailed, informing him of the suspension. He later offered to take down the post but decided against it, given that it had been reprinted widely on social media.
Lotz said he had been unaware of DCI’s social media policy but acknowledged that his statement was in violation. Nonetheless, he stood by his critique.
“I didn't say anything about the Bluecoats or the Blue Devils or the Cadets or any actively fielding organization,” he said, referring to some of the more prominent corps. “I spoke out against corps that were not fielding because of their own disruptions in their own houses.”
Given Lotz’s resignation, Aresnal’s board of directors plans to meet soon to discuss a path forward. The corps can still compete in the lower level of DCI but will not be allowed to reapply for Open Class admission until next year.
Lotz’s end at Arsenal is especially poignant considering his reason for starting the group.
Lotz marched two summers with another DCI corps, where he said he was verbally berated by an instructor and given inadequate medical care for an injury, leaving him with back pain today. His experience left him disillusioned. He started Arsenal, a job for which he wasn’t paid, hoping to foster a more positive experience for other members.
In 2016, the group had 33 members. Last year, it had grown to 49. This year, Lotz expected closer to 70.
Xander Gosney joined last year, taking a bus 48 hours from Ohio. The 16-year-old mellophone player called Lotz a “straight up, honest” director. He said he has hoped to one day march with a World Class corps and was honing his skills with Arsenal.
“I was going to stay there for another one or two years,” he said.
Now, he is not sure if he will return.
Lotz has decided he is finished with drum corps.