An alleged hazing incident at Cottage Grove High School has resulted in the criminal citation of two 15-year-old boys and the discipline of at least seven others following a police and school district investigation.
The allegations surfaced after a freshman junior varsity football player reported that he was harassed by two older varsity players in the school locker room.
Following an investigation by the Cottage Grove Police Department, as well as a separate investigation by the South Lane School District (SLSD), two students were cited for harassment, a Class A misdemeanor, which carries a maximum $6,250 fine and/or one year in jail. The Sentinel learned at least seven other students were disciplined, with some receiving suspensions, after the school investigation revealed other incidents that the district said were less severe and not related to the hazing incident. The school district would not comment further on the reasons for the other student reprimands due to student privacy concerns.
The case was first made public in an Oct. 21 Register-Guard article which characterized the victim as being sexually assaulted with as many as 10 people present, as reported to the Eugene newspaper by what it identified as a “member of the victim’s family.”
Subsequent reports by local news stations and comments and allegations on social media have revolved around the sexual nature of the incident as well as the possibility of more victims, leading to outrage among some in the community in regard to what complainants felt were light consequences for the students who were cited.
SLSD released a letter to students and parents on Oct. 24, stating that, “the reports of rape and other sexual crimes … are not consistent with the findings of our investigation.”
The following day, on Oct. 25, three parents protested outside the high school in response to the district’s handling of the incident.
Sources close to the investigation have confirmed to The Sentinel that around 11 a.m. on Sept. 27, the school district was notified of a complaint about harassment in the school locker room. When it became apparent a possible crime had occurred, school officials contacted local police. By 12:25 p.m. the school resource officer had requested a case number for the incident as the Cottage Grove Police Department and SLSD began separate investigations.
That night, at least a dozen varsity football players were missing from the roster of a high school football game in Cottage Grove. When asked that evening at the event, school staff would not comment on the reason for the lack of active players for the Sept. 27 game.
As part of the Cottage Grove Police Department’s investigation, separate interviews were conducted with the alleged victim, witnesses and suspects.
Conversations with the victim led to the freshman boy being referred to a children’s advocacy group in Eugene, where a forensic interview was conducted the following Tuesday on Oct. 1.
Through the investigation, it was determined that on or around Sept. 16, a member of the varsity football team picked up the freshman victim in the locker room while another varsity member attempted to thrust a broomstick into the victim’s rectum. The two varsity players then pulled the victim to the locker room floor, where one suspect held the victim down as the other continued the same act with the broomstick.
According to interviews conducted as part of the investigation, as well as information obtained by The Sentinel, it was determined that no sex crime had been committed because the victim was wearing underwear and a football girdle during the incident, preventing actual penetration by the object.
Citations to appear in court were issued Oct. 3 to both 15-year-old varsity players for harassment, a charge which contains a subsection which describes “offensive physical contact [which] consists of touching the sexual or other intimate parts of the other person.”
The police department’s investigation was closed Oct. 4, and the case was passed on to Lane County Youth Services.
According to Cottage Grove Police Chief Scott Shepherd, charges may be changed by the District Attorney’s office depending on circumstances. In such a case, the Cottage Grove Police Department may likely be contacted for follow-up. As of press time on Oct. 28, there were no indications that the charges would be altered.
Simultaneously, SLSD conducted its own investigation, which stretched back to the beginning of the sports season, with no additional criminal acts reported by the district. However, a total of nine students received disciplinary action as a result of the investigation — with at least some being suspensions. The school district said that a majority of these disciplined students were not connected to the hazing report, but rather disciplined for other behavior.
At the most recent Cottage Grove football game on Oct. 25, a total of 14 players that had been on the Lions’ preseason roster were no longer listed, however some were said by the school district to have moved away or quit for reasons unrelated to the hazing incident.
Though the school district and the police department have completed their investigations, some news reports and a consistent stream of online comments have given life to the worry that the investigations were not accurate or comprehensive enough.
A KEZI television report on Oct. 22 featured an anonymous “family friend” who stated that a “doctor had confirmed” that the victim had been sexually assaulted, lending credence to the claim that the crime was more serious than investigations concluded.
However, an online version of the KEZI report that appeared later did not include the claim about the medical evaluation, but added that a member of the alleged victim’s family said the accused perpetrators also placed their genitalia on the boy while they were holding him down. The Sentinel could not independently varify these claims.
The Cottage Grove Police Department has confirmed with The Sentinel that no medical exam was administered to the victim as part of the investigation, as would be protocol in the instance of a suspected sex crime.
School district officials said they had no information on the claims regarding the medical evaluation or claims that the broomstick had been inserted into the victim’s rectum.
If true, the allegations could constitute unlawful sexual penetration, a Class B felony rather than a lesser Class A misdemeanor.
In the aftermath of media reports, the Cottage Grove community expressed its shock and disbelief on social media, some making claims that the incident was more severe than was reported, including allegations that nude photos of other students had been distributed.
However, no mention of recording devices was reported in the criminal case according to the police department.
“Phones are not acceptable in the locker room,” said Interim Assistant Superintendent Brian McCasline. “The phone issue did not come up in the investigation.”
If such actions took place, they would likely constitute an invasion of personal privacy in the second degree, also a Class A misdemeanor.
The concerns raised by the community pose the question as to whether a culture of harassment exists in the high school’s locker room or football program.
Information obtained by The Sentinel as part of its own investigation has suggested that varsity members of the Cottage Grove High School football team this year habitually exposed themselves in the locker room to younger junior varsity members to make the junior members uncomfortable. Though such behavior is prohibited under the Cottage Grove High School Student and Parent Handbook, it does not technically or necessarily constitute a criminal act.
Because of the school’s restrictive protocol on releasing details about minors, the degree to which harassment has taken place this year in the high school locker room remains unclear and the reasons for disciplinary actions resulting from the school’s investigation have not been released.
However, The Sentinel was able to confirm that the police department’s investigation turned up no other cases rising to the level of criminal action.
“At no time during the investigation did we think there were other people at risk,” said Shepherd, who added that, to his knowledge, no cases of this nature have emerged or been opened in the last two decades.
Shepherd, who himself worked as an assistant basketball coach at the high school for several years up until 2017, said, “There have been thefts at the high school. There have been thefts from locker rooms. There has been harassment. But nothing to the degree of a broomstick.”
In Shepherd’s experience as a coach, he said misbehavior to a lesser extent had its place.
“We had to yell at kids and tell them to quit running around or chasing people or snapping them with towels ...” he said. “But we never dealt with anything like this.”
On Oct. 25, KEZI reported that the family of a second victim had stepped forward to allege that their 14-year-old son had been similarly assaulted by members of the football team, also with a broomstick.
In the report, the family said it suspected that there were more victims.
McCasline addressed the alleged second incident in an interview with The Sentinel, saying “We have investigated all known reports, including the [new] one being brought forward, and have taken appropriate action,” he said. “There wasn’t anything to refer to the police and we issued consequences appropriately.”
The police department stated it has not found evidence of any other cases matching the description of harassment alleged by the second family and emphasized in statements to The Sentinel that only one criminal case has resulted from investigations.
Moreover, McCasline did not believe that such actions were commonplace.
“During the investigation, there was no evidence that this was a long-standing pattern of behavior,” he said.
Even so, the school district has stated that it is taking steps to prevent similar incidents from happening again.
“We have modified our supervision in the locker room to make sure that coaches are within eye and earshot of students at all times,” McCasline said. “We need every athlete within sight and sound at this point.”
Until recently, line-of-site supervision wasn’t a requirement, with coaches primarily relying on audio supervision of the locker room.
In a statement released on Oct. 24, Superintendent Larry Sullivan spoke to the school’s change in policies while explaining why it had not published details of the case earlier, citing the need to protect the investigations and students.
“We did not provide more details about the students involved because we have an obligation to protect the privacy of our students, not only in this instance, but at all times,” Sullivan said in the statement.
In taking steps to prevent future cases, the school has addressed the football team about expectations with regards to hazing, harassment and bullying. Future sessions are also planned with all sports teams on these topics.
District officials said that a third party, such as the Oregon School Athletic Association (OSAA) will likely oversee changes made to the school’s policies.
The district was unable to speak specifically to what was being done for the freshman victim in the criminal case, however, due to student privacy.
“There’s a policy with regards to what we do [for victims] when there’s allegations of harassment or bullying,” said McCasline.
Sullivan added that the school offers services in cases where students may need counseling.
On the morning of Oct. 25, school officials spoke to students in an assembly which addressed the issue of harassment.
“We made some assurances and told them where we’re headed, what we expect of them and what we expected of all of us in the future,” McCasline said.
Among those expectations, McCasline said, is a school district that is attentive and responsive to student reports of harassment, intimidation and bullying.
“If there are any other reports that haven’t been reported to the Cottage Grove police or the school district, then we of course would want to know that,” said McCasline.
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