Report: Sex assaults in high school sports minimized

Reese Dunklin
Associated Press

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.

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 assaulted 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 assaulted 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 (butts),” they pinned down one boy, and assaulted him. They pulled down another boy’s shorts. He got them back up, but the attackers assaulted him. 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.

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.

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.”

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 assaulted 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 assaulting them. 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.

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.”

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, Washington.

After showering at a 2010 basketball camp, he was tackled by four upperclassmen who tried to assault him, 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.’ “