'Rape game' allegations shake North Dakota school district

Richland 44 Senior High School
An independent report that says school leaders failed to sufficiently respond to allegations of student hazing and sexual misconduct at the Richland 44 School District.

This story is by Kim Hyatt of the Fargo Forum newspaper.

Disturbing details of sodomy and sexual assault dating back to 2015 in the Richland 44 School District are described in an independent report that says school leaders failed to sufficiently respond to allegations of student hazing and sexual misconduct.

The district hired a Minneapolis law firm, Langevin Lentz, to investigate the matter and compile the findings in a report, which The Forum obtained Friday, April 6, through a public records request.

In the 46-page report, superintendent Tim Godfrey, high school principal Bruce Anderson and athletic director John Freeman — whose departures from the district were announced this week — claim to have not known before Jan. 17 that variations of something called the "rape game" had been occurring for years.

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It was on Jan. 17 that two parents confronted Godfrey about the "rape game," one stating that their child came home with "holes in his underwear." The report also says at least two incidents of sexual misconduct were reported to Anderson and a coach but were not investigated.

Attempts to reach Godfrey, Anderson and Freeman by phone Friday were unsuccessful. Godfrey will resign and Anderson will retire at the end of the school year. Freeman is no longer with the district, and the terms of his departure have not been disclosed.

The report says hazing and sexual misconduct took place in locker rooms, on field trips and during physical education class and musical rehearsals. The report also says district policies on hazing and bullying are not accessible or easily understood and that staff training on these policies is insufficient.

The law firm's review focused on events before Jan. 24, the date when news media began reporting on the misconduct investigation led by the Richland County Sheriff's Office.

The investigation resulted in five male students collectively facing 13 misdemeanor counts of hazing, 11 misdemeanor counts of sexual assault, nine felony counts of felonious restraint and one felony count of terrorizing. The boys charged were referred to juvenile court. All of the victims were male, authorities said.

In addition to law enforcement investigating the allegations, Langevin Lentz conducted 56 interviews with school board members, administrators, teachers, coaches and parents.

"Some commented that 'boys will be boys'.... And others commented that 'this kind of stuff' is common and 'happens all over the country,'" the report states. "But no one we spoke to said or suggested that physical restraint, sexual assault, or unwanted touching is acceptable."

One student athlete considered transferring schools after he reported last spring being held down by his teammates who then stuck their fingers in his butt. The student's parent shared this with an assistant coach who didn't raise the issue with the athletic director, principal or superintendent, according to the report.

Another student reported "screaming" when being "trapped, chased and caught and assaulted" by other students on multiple occasions during fall 2017 musical rehearsals.

Two parents reported that their children were restrained and poked in the butt through their clothes while staying in a hotel room during a field trip this school year. One instance involved using a toothbrush, according to the report.

A parent reported to Anderson in fall 2017 concerns about inappropriate locker room behavior involving male middle school students after physical education class. The parent said students were poking each other in the butt. Anderson spoke with the teacher and students, but the report says the school should have investigated further.

'Knock this off'

One assistant coach told the law firm that several years ago when he was a student athlete at Richland 44, another student athlete began something called "the rape game."

Descriptions of this so-called "game" vary, but involve turning off the lights, typically in a locker room, running around and trying to stick fingers up others' butts or poking them in the butt through clothes with fingers or objects.

Others described the "rape game" as sexual assault, sodomy or sexual harassment. The report says "there is not a consistent understanding of what the 'rape game' is, what behavior occurred or even what behavior has been reported." But variations of the "rape game" have been occuring at the school since the 2015-2016 school year.

On Jan. 18, the day after two parents confronted Godfrey about the "rape game," Godfrey, Anderson and Freeman met with male student athletes. Godfrey said in the meeting that such conduct could be sexual harassment and that it was unacceptable. Godfrey recalls Freeman saying, "I told you to knock this off," and Anderson said Godfrey told the boys "we've been through this before."

Freeman told the boys if the behavior continued, "offenders would be unable to play basketball for the rest of the season," the report states.

The report says it is undisputed that parents were not informed of the Jan. 18 meeting. Several parents demanded a meeting with Godfrey on Jan. 19, when there was a basketball game scheduled later that evening. Godfrey, Anderson and Freeman met with parents to talk about the "rape game." Godfrey told parents law enforcement was getting involved and that he didn't know the extent of the problem.

"Some of the parents at the meeting were very emotional and expressed anger at the alleged perpetrators and at school officials. One parent said if he found out that someone had done this to his child, he ... was willing to 'go to jail.'"

According to the report, Godfrey said there would be supervision in the locker rooms to address the situation. However, at the Jan. 19 game, junior varsity players were in the locker room unsupervised, the report states.

"A number of parents reported their deep disappointment at the failure of the superintendent, principal, athletic director and coaches to provide locker room supervision that the parents believed they have been promised," the report states.

Community impact

The law firm's report noted that the lack of supervision and security in locker rooms as well as clear communication between the district and parents "greatly affected everyone involved and significantly impacted the community."

Lack of communication was the result of several factors, including some teachers' and parents' pre-existing lack of confidence in Godfrey, students' reluctance to talk about sensitive matters and intense emotional reactions from all concerned, according to the report.

The report says district business is regularly conducted on personal electronic devices and personal social media accounts, which the law firm says is not best practice. The app GroupMe was used for communication between coaches and players and was a source of concern for many parents.

At some point after parents complained Jan. 17, Godfrey instructed Freeman to "shut down" or "delete" the app, and Freeman's attempts to do so resulted in deleting all prior posts, the report says. The lack of evidence was an issue during the independent review, but parents did provide the law firm with screenshots of some communication revealing sexual references and hazing.

An exchange on the app with sexual or hazing references was seen by at least one coach and the athletic director who allegedly "did not object or attempt to control student communication on the app," the report states.

On Friday, School Board President Lisa Amundson told The Forum the board is very concerned about the contents of the report and will continue to review and address the issues.

"Throughout this report there are indicators that suggest our entire Richland 44 community must take a collective look at the culture in our junior/senior high school," Amundson wrote in a letter. "Our children are watching and waiting for us to set the example and show them the way forward from these past few months. We do not intend to let them down."