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Broke-down buses, Ibuprofen, and a sex offender: On the road with Pioneer Drum Corps

Four months after the director of Allentown's famed Cadets drum corps, George Hopkins, resigned amid a sexual misconduct scandal, the spotlight has now turned on another, smaller corps — Pioneer of Milwaukee.

Pioneer Drum and Bugle Corps members perform during the corps' 50th anniversary gathering in July 2011.
Pioneer Drum and Bugle Corps members perform during the corps' 50th anniversary gathering in July 2011.Read moreMark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Shoddy tour buses without air-conditioning in sweltering summer heat. Teenagers forced to provide medical care in lieu of professionals on staff. A known registered sex offender coaching the young performers.

This is Pioneer, a Milwaukee-based drum and bugle corps that crosses the country each summer performing theatrical marching band numbers to devoted fans. The group, whose members face taxing, all-day practices to perfect their shows, is one of two dozen competing in the most advanced tier of the all-American niche activity.

And now  — in a year that has brought unprecedented scrutiny of drum corps — it's the latest to face questions about its leadership, and to inspire renewed criticism of the activity's governing body.

That organization, Drum Corps International (DCI), on Tuesday announced it had suspended Pioneer late last week. But it waited until the end of the season, despite ongoing complaints, to take the action. And it announced the move after the Inquirer and Daily News posed questions about the corps to DCI on Monday as part of an investigation into the activity, which started with airing sexual misconduct allegations against the now-former director of a famed Allentown drum corps.

DCI executive director Dan Acheson, in a statement, said the organization had been investigating Pioneer for several months and provided support through the summer with the goal of letting the corps finish the season.

Critics say that level of oversight had been warranted for years.

Pioneer's problems are nothing new. Interviews with nearly two dozen people who have marched with or taught at Pioneer within the last decade identified numerous shortcomings that have plagued the corps for years.

"It's the most well-known secret in DCI. It's why so many of our members leave," said Brett Luce, who marched with Pioneer in 2009 and taught there in 2015. "They march for a year, and then they go to other corps, where they're safe and have high-quality experiences. And they tell the story; they tell their new friends. Everybody knows about Pioneer."

>> Sexual abuse in drum and bugle corps: Do you have a story?

Ahead of the 2018 summer tour, officials at the Indianapolis-based DCI attempted a course correction.

The organization had long operated as an event-management company, planning a two-month, coast-to-coast summer tour while providing administrative and logistical support to the separate corps. Acheson, in an April interview, acknowledged that DCI had made "the assumption these nonprofit organizations, in their own right, are doing what they're supposed to be doing to manage themselves accordingly."

He did so shortly after one of the activity's most prominent leaders, George Hopkins, director of Allentown's Cadets drum corps, was ousted amid allegations that he sexually harassed or assaulted nine women. DCI pledged more oversight and passed a new code of conduct — and gave Acheson sole discretion in disciplining corps' that did not comply.

DCI also launched an online whistle-blower form.

In the coming weeks, the form became an outlet for frustrated Pioneer members — and a source of ire for the corps' director, Roman Blenski.

At an all-corps meeting this summer, according to six people in attendance, Blenski called those who had used the site "snitches" and made a comparison that left many in the room stunned.

"He said, 'If your dad is beating you, you wouldn't go tell people, would you?'" recalled Natalie Ballew, a 19-year-old member of the corps. "All of the people at my table, including me, looked at each other. Our mouths were gaping open."

Blenski, in an interview Monday, said he did not recall making that comment. But he doubled down on branding the whistle-blowers as snitches.

"In the regular world, you know, that's snitching," said Blenski, 77, who founded Pioneer in 1961 and is among drum corps' longest-serving leaders. "Whistle-blower sounds much better for it, of course."

"Do we have any proof of who did it? Not with any certainty," he added. "But we have a relative idea who did it."

Blenski's plea to keep complaints in-house backfired, inspiring many who say they have long harbored concerns about the corps' leadership to speak up. Among the most alarming allegations made in interviews with those who have taught at or marched with Pioneer over the past decade are:

  1. Injured or sick members have been dropped off at hospitals or urgent care facilities while on the road and left there by staff. Two, one in 2010 and one this summer, said they were minors at the time. Two others said Blenski promised to pick them up when they were discharged but never arrived, so they had to take cabs to reunite with the corps.

  2. Members and staff describe Blenski as being quick to disregard potentially serious health concerns and to suggest over-the-counter medications as adequate treatment. "NyQuil and Ibuprofen, and suck it up," one recent staff member said of Blenski's approach. Members said many medical problems this summer were treated by two teenage members of the corps, one a nursing assistant and the other in training to be an EMT. They said Blenski complained often about the number of people going to the hospital.

  3. Blenski often makes offensive and culturally insensitive comments, according to members and staff.  He has made jokes about the corps' international members, such as assuring Japanese students they would get plenty of  of rice to eat and telling South African members that he knew they had pet monkeys and tigers at home. Blenski referred to a skinny member of the corps as a Auschwitz survivor. "No big deal," he said when asked about the Auschwitz comment. "The kid is all bones, skin and bones."

  4. Pioneer owns its own buses. Members and staff say they are poorly maintained and unreliable. In 2013, members slept in a parking lot for a night when the buses broke down. The buses often do not have working air-conditioning, creating oppressive conditions, especially when the tour reaches the southern states in the peak of summer.

  5. A Pioneer bus driver, Calvin Hollis, was arrested in the middle of the the 2017 tour when the corps pulled over at a rest stop in his home state of Oklahoma and the police were waiting for him with a warrant. Hollis, whom Blenski said he did not conduct a background check on, had a lengthy criminal record including convictions for grand larceny and drug possession. Blenski also hired Austin Melcher, a registered sex offender, as an instructor in 2017. He said he knew Melcher's criminal history at the time.

Acheson declined to speak with a reporter for this story. In a statement, he said DCI put a "system of rigorous oversight in place" after receiving whistle-blower complaints against Pioneer. The organization also ensured Pioneer administrators "made necessary changes" during the remainder of the tour, according to the statement. Asked to elaborate, Acheson declined.

He said in the statement that DCI made the decision to suspend Pioneer after additional complaints were made on social media and directly to DCI after the season ended.

Blenski — who also serves on Pioneer's board, along with three members of his immediate family — in a far-reaching, hour-long interview Monday said many of the recent allegations were false, but acknowledged room for improvement.

Blenski defended his decision to hire Melcher, saying he spoke to several of Melcher's counselors and they supported the decision. He also minimized Melcher's offense, saying that it was his understanding Melcher had been arrested for having inappropriate pictures on his computer. Police records show Melcher was arrested for secretly filming an adult relative while she was naked.

Acheson, in a statement, said DCI officials learned in 2017 that Blenski had hired Melcher and recommended he be fired, though DCI had no jurisdiction to force him to do so. Blenski said he fired Melcher before this year's tour because the issue "was being used to discredit the organization and becoming a liability."

"To this day, I stand behind him as a class guy, good teacher, quality member," Blenski said. "He made a big mistake and paid the price."

Blenski said he is considering hiring medical staff for next season. DCI does not require corps to travel with medical staff or volunteers, but the practice is becoming common given the demanding physical nature of the activity. DCI on Tuesday said it is considering the need for a formal policy.

But he also placed some blame on individual members, who pay nearly $3,000 to participate in the season, suggesting they were not physically up to the task.

"There were some members, Monday morning quarterbacking, we probably shouldn't have taken them," he said, adding that he did not follow his own policy of requiring a doctor's note from every participant.

He said the corps' policy is to never leave an underage member alone at a hospital and is not aware of that ever happening. As for transportation, he acknowledged the corps' buses could use more investment but said they were reliable this season.

He said he plans to meet with Acheson this week and hopes the issues that led to Pioneer's suspension can be addressed and the ban lifted.

But for some Pioneer veterans, their view of the organization has already been irreparably damaged.

Jordan Fields, a 22-year-old youth leader in the corps, said as morale dipped this season, his peers  vented to him about the conditions so often that it triggered anxiety for him. He decided to go home mid-tour.

"It didn't feel healthy for me to be in that environment," he said.

Others, like one 16-year-old rookie, finished the summer but swore to never return to Pioneer.

"Drum corps is [supposed to be] a sense of family," said the member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared being named would hurt his chances of being accepted to march elsewhere. "I did not get a sense of family. Actually, I'll take that back, I did get a sense of family — through the hardships we faced. We bonded through what happened this summer."