Sex assaults in high school sports minimized as 'hazing'

Parkview High School baseball team
Plaques mark the accomplishments of the Parkview High School baseball team as they warm up before a baseball game in Lilburn, Ga., on April 26. Older Parkview players in 2015 were disciplined for sexual battery, in part, after attacking younger teammates, but the district called it "inappropriate physical contact" and "misbehavior."
John Bazemore | AP

The Georgia school district said it was investigating the baseball players for "misbehavior" and "inappropriate physical contact." What it didn't reveal was that a younger teammate had reported being sexually assaulted.

Even after players were later disciplined for sexual battery, the district cited student confidentiality to withhold details from the public and used "hazing" to describe the incident, which it also failed to report to the state as required.

Across the U.S., perhaps nowhere is student-on-student sexual assault as dismissed or as camouflaged as in boys' sports, an Associated Press investigation found. Mischaracterized as hazing and bullying, the violence is so normalized on some teams that it persists for years, as players attacked one season become aggressors the next.

Coaches frequently say they're not aware of what's happening. But AP found multiple cases where coaches knew and failed to intervene or, worse, tried to cover it up.

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The AP examined sexual violence in school sports as part of its larger look at student-on-student sex assaults. Analyzing state education records, supplemented by federal crime data, AP found about 17,000 official reports of sex assaults by students in grades K-12 over a recent four-year period. That figure doesn't capture the extent of problem because attacks are widely under-reported and not all states track them or classify them uniformly.

Nor does the data paint a detailed picture of specific incidents, revealed when the AP reviewed more than 300 cases of student-on-student sexual violence that surfaced through law enforcement records, lawsuits, interviews and news accounts. In those cases, the sports setting emerged as a leading venue for such attacks.

Teammate-on-teammate sexual assaults occurred in all types of sports in public schools, and experts said the more than 70 cases in five years that AP identified were the tip of the iceberg. Though largely a high school phenomenon, some cases were reported as early as middle school.

Boys made up the majority of aggressors and victims in teammate attacks, records show, and some suffered serious injury and trauma.

An Idaho football player was hospitalized in 2015 with rectal injuries after he was sodomized with a coat hanger. That same year, a North Carolina teen suffered rectal bruising when he was jabbed through his clothes with a broomstick. Parents of a Vermont athlete blamed his 2012 suicide on distress a year after teammates sodomized him with a broom.

"It's basically rape and sexual assault," said Hank Nuwer, a hazing historian at Franklin College in Indiana. "It's amazing to me that there hasn't been a public outcry on this to help stop it."

The acts meet federal law enforcement definitions of rape and sexual assault, but language shrouds the problem and minimizes its severity. It also shapes how coaches and schools respond, and can influence whether off-campus authorities hold anyone accountable. "Language is everything," said B. Elliot Hopkins, a sports safety expert at the National Federation of State High School Associations. "If anyone knew that their kid was going to run the risk of being sexually assaulted to be part of a team, we wouldn't have anyone playing any sports."

Playing with words

What really happened on the Georgia baseball team — compared to the school district's official statement — is outlined in graphic detail in state education, police and court records AP obtained.

The players from Parkview High School, in the Atlanta suburb of Lilburn, were playing in a tournament in South Carolina in June 2015. That year's squad would be defending the school's third state championship and second Baseball America High School Team of the Year title since 2011.

Over a pizza dinner, an upperclassman warned several freshmen to "sleep with one eye open tonight" and specifically threatened sexual violence.

At the team hotel later, with coaches nowhere in sight, five to eight upperclassmen barged into a room and ordered three freshmen out of hiding. Over shouts of "get his ass," they pinned down one boy, and through his shorts, he felt fingers shoved into his rectum. They pulled down another boy's shorts. He got them back up, but the attackers grabbed and punched his testicles. The third managed to flee.

To gain entry to a second room, one of the upperclassmen pretended to be a freshman and obtained a key from the front desk. Inside, the aggressors blocked the door and ganged up on one boy. Only when he broke free and threatened to tell the coach did the assault stop. "We don't want to be raped!" another terrified boy pleaded.

The upperclassmen didn't challenge the evidence in disciplinary proceedings, but described what they did to the freshmen as "wrestling and horse playing."

Targeting rookies for humiliating, and even risky, rituals is not new to sports. However, experts say the last 10 to 15 years have seen an escalation into sexual violence.

The reasons why aren't entirely clear, and research on sports hazing rarely addresses these assaults in depth. But players, perhaps influenced by sexualized pop culture, seem to be trying to one-up what was done to them, experts say.

Although many of the cases AP identified included anal penetration, grabbing crotches or grinding genitals into teammates, those who often first learn of incidents — coaches, school officials — routinely characterize them as hazing, bullying or initiations.

People don't want to think kids could act that way and chalk it up to jock behavior, said Danielle Rogers, who in 2011 prosecuted locker-room assaults by three athletes in Hardin, Mo.

"If this had happened on the street, nobody would say this is hazing or bullying," she said.

Because of that mislabeling, such cases don't always show up in state education records or federal crime data as sexual assault, and no one specifically tracks or catalogs them in a systemic way. School districts frequently won't divulge information about attacks, fighting public records requests or declining to answer basic questions. Sometimes that's because they're trying to be sensitive to students. Other times, experts say, it's about protecting school image.

"Does a school district really want it out that they're not protecting kids and kids are being sexually assaulted, and then turn around and ask you for money to build a new library?" Hopkins said.

In the Georgia case, a draft public statement from the Gwinnett County Public Schools initially said a player's family had reported he was "sexually assaulted," according to records AP obtained. But the final version referred only to "inappropriate physical contact." When asked, district officials said that wording was "more inclusive" of the "diversity of the types of misconduct alleged."

Months later, after several upperclassmen were disciplined in part for sexual battery or aggravated sexual battery, the district shared the public statement that described the ordeal as "hazing." Officials argued they didn't have to report the incident in data the state collects on school violence because it happened in the summer. The Georgia Department of Education told AP the district was wrong and would need to correct its filing.

Georgia school administrators were not alone in their toned-down language. In South Carolina, where the baseball tournament was held, police logged the incident as a "possible hazing" and "simple assault," despite its own report saying a freshman's father alleged players "sexually violated two other boys." There were no charges, and North Charleston police declined comment.

Where are coaches?

Coaches serve as parental figures in many schools and communities, especially where sports are a source of civic pride. They are entrusted with the care of players at night, on weekends and during out-of-town trips. They call teams "family."

While many live up to that image, coaches in several cases AP examined fostered the opportunity for misconduct through poor supervision. Some coaches became aware of misbehavior but treated it as a team disciplinary matter. Others failed to do anything.

• A group of five Florida baseball players had allegedly penetrated two teammates, one with a Gatorade bottle, during an out-of-town tournament in 2016. One boy told the coach, who responded, "It's just baseball, keep it to yourself," according to a police report filed months later.

• In Texas, a teacher reported in 2011 that basketball players were putting their fingers in teammates' bottoms. The coach insisted the action was merely a joke and not hazing, and his assistant called the complaint a "misrepresentation" by a "disgruntled player and father," school records show. The district told AP the allegations were reported to authorities, but police said they were not notified.

• Two New Mexico football coaches walked in just after a player was sodomized with a broomstick in 2008. The boys laughed it off as an "initiation" and coaches took no action, failing to halt a subsequent attack, district records show. Seven victims later sued, settling for $5 million.

Then there's a December 2015 case involving a Tennessee basketball team, investigated jointly by the prosecutor's and sheriff's offices in Chattanooga, along with an outside review the Hamilton County school district commissioned.

The law enforcement report shows that a freshman confided to a coach that upperclassmen had sexually assaulted him and others with a pool cue in a cabin during an out-of-town tournament trip. Despite that warning, the upperclassmen continued unchecked. Two went on to pin another boy face down on a bed as a third thrust a pool cue into his rectum, shredding two layers of clothing and breaking off the tip inside him. The coaches, who were elsewhere in the cabin, heard him scream and drove him to a hospital after seeing him bleeding.

A nurse, not the coaches, contacted authorities. Back at the cabin, the head coach's wife cleaned up and threw the boy's soiled clothing into a garbage can, "essentially erasing evidence of the crime," investigators said.

The head coach called the boy's mother but "grossly minimized" his condition, so she allowed her son to remain with the team, authorities said. After his discharge from the hospital, the boy returned to the cabin, collapsed and had to be rushed into emergency surgery to repair a damaged bladder, colon and rectal wall.

The head coach instructed players at some point to keep quiet, investigators found. No school official — including an athletic director, principal, assistant superintendent and superintendent — immediately called other parents. Another victim's mother found out the next day only because she called a coach to find out how the Ooltewah High School team's game went. "If this boy had not gone to the hospital, had he not been bleeding, nobody would have known about this," said Eddie Schmidt, a lawyer representing the player's family, which did not respond to interview requests.

The head coach and other school officials said in legal responses they didn't know about the violence or seek to withhold information from parents. The coach and his wife, who was not charged, did not respond to messages.

While the accused attackers were ultimately prosecuted, the adults ultimately escaped prosecution. A judge ruled that the failure-to-report laws didn't apply in player-on-player abuse, a gap that some state legislators want to close.

And while coaches in the Tennessee, Florida, Texas and New Mexico cases lost their jobs, some returned to work elsewhere. For instance, the Texas basketball coach — from the Dallas suburb of Flower Mound -- is now at a private school. Charles Freet told AP that remarks he and his assistant made at the time "accurately explain what occurred and I have nothing more to add."

Laws impact accountability

In many ways, what happened among high school basketball players in Leechburg, Pa., a small town outside Pittsburgh, is a microcosm of the problem.

Some Leechburg players were sodomizing teammates with a phallic-shaped piece of wood they called a "yoshi" stick, records and interviews show. If someone goofed in practice, players would yell, "You're getting yoshied!"

After two boys' parents complained in January 2016, the school investigated for half a day and the principal sent a one-page letter saying the boys simply were "harassed by three varsity players with a wooden stick." The players were briefly suspended, but the district reported zero incidents in the 10 sex offense categories the state education department requires it to track. Someone alerted authorities, and Leechburg police soon said they had unraveled additional assaults dating back 10 years.

In March 2016, Chief Michael Diebold announced "there may have been catastrophic failure within the school district." But no charges were filed because Diebold said either victims declined to press for them or incidents hadn't escalated enough to meet the legal standards for sexual assault or other charges.

Diebold said Pennsylvania's hazing law also wasn't available because it applied only to colleges at the time. He decided to leave the case open should a witness or other victim come forward. Lack of serious consequences can raise doubts about allegations that already have been mislabeled by schools or coaches, said Susan Lipkins, a New York psychologist and author who specializes in sports attacks. And that can lead to backlash against victims, she noted, with communities uniting behind coaches or accused players.

The parents of one of the targeted Leechburg boys said his family is now afraid to dine out in public because of blowback.

"We've pretty much been ostracized from the community," the boy's father told AP.

Meanwhile, Leechburg Coach Damian Davies eventually lost his position, but many fans, parents and former players rallied in his support. He remains a teacher and unpaid coach for girls' basketball and has sued the district for a copy of its internal investigative report, which he believes will clear him.

"No players have ever come to me," Davies said. "As the players told me, either nothing happened or if it did it was a joke."

Changing a culture

Often in sports, a culture of acceptance sets in and enables further abuse.

Experts say players are indoctrinated when they're new, transition into bystanders seeing others harmed and sometimes become attackers themselves, feeling a form of duty to uphold team "tradition." Some players may even think enduring such acts builds team toughness.

But more often, Lipkins said, older players use sexual violence to exert dominance over newer or smaller boys vying for the roster. "What's worse for a young jock than to be emasculated to the lowest level, to be like a girl?" she said.

Athletes who are sexually assaulted feel particularly pressured to stay silent, experts say. After all, speaking up could jeopardize a spot in the lineup they've trained years for, or risk team success by getting other players in trouble.

Amanda Jackson's son waited two years to tell her what he said he experienced as a freshman at Capital High School in Olympia, Wash.

After showering at a 2010 basketball camp, he was tackled by four upperclassmen who tried to penetrate him with their fingers, according to his deposition in the family's pending lawsuit against the Olympia School District. The boy said he didn't want to worry his mom, plus he was "afraid to tell on my teammates."

"I felt like if I told someone," he testified, "then I would have been, you know, excluded from the team and not able to play varsity basketball."

He finally spoke up after more boys were jumped at a similar camp, leading the district to investigate the school.

A psychological evaluation conducted as part of the lawsuit showed Jackson's son exhibited post-traumatic stress symptoms. He went on to play college basketball, but his mother still worries about him.

"I want to get everything out there so people understand this is not normal," she said. "I am sick and tired as a parent of running into individuals, professional individuals, who do this 'Oh, boys will be boys.' "

Peg Pennepacker, who specializes in legal issues for the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association, said safety training would help alter those attitudes.

"If we don't make a cultural shift at the K-12 level, nothing's going to change," said Pennepacker, athletic director at Pennsylvania's State College Area School District.

Hopkins, the sports safety expert, said sexual violence could end "overnight" if schools stressed the dangers to players and coaches, encouraged speaking out and taught healthy team-bonding.

"We have the power and skill sets in schools to end it," he said. "But adults aren't saying the proper words to the kids and adults aren't saying the proper words to the coaches. And that's why it goes on."

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