Texas Matters: La Vernia ISD And Sexual Assault Hazing Allegations

May 5, 2017

It was in late March that Wilson County Sheriffs' deputies showed up at La Vernia High School and began making arrests.

For weeks the community 30 miles south east of San Antonio had seen rumors on social media that hazing rituals with the high school male sports teams had gone too far.

That same day the school district’s superintendent Jose Moreno posted a public statement on Facebook. It read:

“A complaint was filed in reference to High School Boy’s Athletics. The District is aware of the complaint and is fulling cooperating with the authorities as they conduct a thorough investigation.”

The community’s comments on the facebook post were a mix of shock, outrage and blame.

And in local news reports there was the ominous tag line – "more arrests are expected."

Thirteen student athletes have been arrested to date. In Texas 17 is the age for adult criminality. Many are being charged with adult criminal assault. After complaints were raised about conflicts of interest the Texas Rangers took over the criminal investigation and the Attorney General’s office took over the prosecution. The Texas Education Agency also received a complaint from the community and has launched it’s own investigation to see if school officials should lose their teaching and coaching certifications.

In April the first of what’s expected to be at least a dozen federal lawsuits was filed claiming there was a “long and sordid history of neglect, misconduct and abuse” “involving dozens of children over a decade or more” where students on the football team forcefully sodomized other members of the team using objects.

Since the day of the initial arrests La Vernia ISD has been in damage control and until recently it has had little to say to the community about the allegations.

On Monday May first at the La Vernia ISD board meeting Superintendent Moreno read a statement.

“By the end of the week we will launch a new method to report bullying – harassment – acts of violence – and other unsafe behaviors called listen to my voice. We now have a La Vernia police officer assigned to the school full time.” 

Moreno also announced that the school district will now conduct its own investigation into the allegations looking to see if coaches knew of the attacks.

“We’ll start our investigation to find out if there’s any information that is still lacking as well as with any employees within our school district to ensure that there was proper notification if there was any idea that this was going on,” he said.

Also at the recent La Vernia ISD board meeting there was an opportunity for citizens to be heard. One local parent Stephen McNeil stepped up to the podium microphones.

“The board has done little to acknowledge or address the issue – for over a month you could not even bring yourselves to say the words “alleged sexual assault – to the victims this means you do not believe the accusations and are just protecting the perpetrators – the ISD administration and the board.”  

In April a federal lawsuit was filed by an unnamed minor who attended La Vernia ISD. Named in the suit is the school district, Superintendent Moreno, the high school principal and members of the coaching staff. The factual allegations of the lawsuit - which are thus far unproven – are graphic and disturbing. It spells out repeated sexual abuse by the team and coaches who could have stopped it but did not.

The student claims the first attack came after he was promoted to the varsity football team and it happened while in a locker room. Afterwards word of the attack spread around high school. After a coach learned of the attack – the players were warned in a team meeting to end the hazing. According to the suit the coach said “You won’t be able to get a job, no girl will date you and you could go to prison.” But the attacks did not stop – they grew in frequency, in brutality and in disturbing nature. 

Attorney J.K. Ivey represents the victim Child Doe and he says more cases, possibly a dozen more, are coming.

“The conduct is unspeakable. My personal belief is that this is something that evolved and developed over time and the school had plenty of knowledge, forethought and opportunity to do something and failed to do it,” he said.

“Child Doe was raped five more times after that in locker room meeting with the coaches – in excusable.”

And according to Ivey, this student was not the only one victimized.

“What we have is an entire culture in the athletic department and program that permitted this to go on season after season from some accounts for more than a decade until it finally got to the point that the story broke.”

Ivey said after the news came out about the abuse in La Vernia high school the victims became targets of retaliation and intimidation by the school district and the community.

“Pressure to recant or change the stories or not bring charges continues unabated and our next step is to be seeking injunctive relief in court to prohibit coaches and other school employees from applying any kind of coercive pressure on these children,” he said.

What is it about hazing? Why do people do it? It happens with military units, street gangs, college fraternities – sororities – bands – choirs – and in the professional work place.

Hazing has been around since people started forming groups – so with this long history you’d might think we’d have a better understanding of it’s motives, it’s importance to group behavior and how to stop it. But we don’t. Hazing and bullying have a lot in common – there’s power and abuse at the core. But Hazing is abuse that masks itself as a “good” for the social group. In that way hazing could be more dangerous than bullying.

Dr. Susan Lipkins is a psychologist who has studied hazing and is the author of the book “Preventing Hazing.”