Steve Belles with Brad Cesmat | 16:18
Ex-Hamilton High School coach Steve Belles talked with Brad Cesmat about hazing, the criminal investigation and his future in coaching.
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Nathaniel Thomas arraignment | 2:25
Arraignment of Nathaniel Thomas, a Hamilton High School football player accused of assault, on Thursday, April 13, 2017.
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Attorney defends charged Hamilton player | 2:23
Ken Countryman, the attorney of Hamilton High School football player Nathaniel Thomas, 17, was joined by the teen’s family and friends after the Thomas was granted a bond by a Maricopa County Superior Court judge Wednesday afternoon.
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Nathaniel Thomas released from jail | 0:28
Nathaniel William Thomas, 17, arrested on criminal charges in connection with an assault investigation at Chandler Hamilton High School, was released on bond from a Maricopa County jail on April 6, 2017. Logan Newman/azcentral.com
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Nathaniel Thomas’s initial court appearance | 9:05
Initial court appearance of Nathaniel William Thomas, 17, who was charged with several felony counts in a case which began with allegations of hazing at Hamilton High School in Chandler. Maricopa County Superior Court
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Here’s what we know about the Hamilton High arrests | 0:38
Here’s what we know about the Hamilton High School hazing arrests.
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Steve Belles with Brad Cesmat
Nathaniel Thomas arraignment
Attorney defends charged Hamilton player
Nathaniel Thomas released from jail
Nathaniel Thomas’s initial court appearance
Here’s what we know about the Hamilton High arrests
Nearly every school district in Maricopa County uses the same written guidelines on hazing.
School employees must report suspected child abuse, and schools must take steps to prevent hazing.
But two high-profile sexual-assault cases involving high-school athletes in the past year have raised questions.
What are school staff, and especially coaches, doing to watch over the students they are charged with protecting?
Several Phoenix-area school districts surveyed by The Arizona Republic said they have yearly training for coaches and athletes.
Many indicated that significant changes weren’t necessary in their existing hazing-awareness programs, saying their districts already had strong protocols in place.
With fall sports well underway, students have received their athletic handbooks detailing the anti-hazing policies, and school officials have made their regular review of the guidelines and expectations in the new school year.
Two districts where problems arose, however, have reviewed and enhanced their programs.
Chandler Hamilton High School is still embroiled in a sexual-assault and hazing investigation involving its football program that emerged months ago.
Allegations that a Glendale Mountain Ridge High School wrestler was molested by teammates during an out-of-town wresting invitational in December shook that school and the wrestling community.
Cases against adults undecided; teens charged
In the Hamilton case, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office has the next move.
It has been eight weeks since Chandler police recommended that Hamilton High School’s Principal Ken James, former football head coach Steve Belles and Athletic Director Shawn Rustad be charged with child abuse and with failing to report the alleged sexual abuse of five players reportedly assaulted by fellow teammates in a hazing initiation.
No charging decision on the school officials has been made by the County Attorney’s Office. The case remains under review. Until then, the three men remain on campus under the presumption of innocence, according to Terry Locke, Chandler Unified School District spokesman.
Chandler police sought charges against James, Belles and Rustad in late July, saying in a probable-cause statement submitted to prosecutors that the men knew about the alleged assaults but did not contact law enforcement. Instead, they opted to investigate matters themselves, police said.
Belles, who was relieved of his coaching duties, has been teaching full time this school year.
“It is important to understand that no adjudication has been made that reporting procedures were not followed,” Locke told The Republic, adding that the men are “innocent until proven guilty under our country’s system of justice.”
Locke said the district has had anti-hazing prevention programs for years, but after the Hamilton case, the hazing-prevention video shown to students and coaches was enhanced “to include real-life situations.”
“We have also implemented Character Matters programs for high school athletes and Positive Coaching Alliance for our junior highs,” Locke said in an email. “In addition, all coaches in Chandler Unified must participate in the (National Federation of State High School Associations) bullying and hazing prevention course.”
All schools are required by Arizona law to adopt and enforce hazing-prevention policies that clearly denounce hazing and are required to report any hazing incidents.
Educators are required by Arizona law to report all known or suspected cases of child abuse or neglect. It is not their job to determine whether the allegations are valid.
The Republic analyzed hazing policies from every school district in Maricopa County. Every district, for the most part, appears to have similar policy language on hazing.
Guidelines for reporting state that when a district employee has reasonable belief that a child may be a victim of child abuse, the employee must “immediately, within reason,” contact appropriate child-protective or law-enforcement agencies.
School personnel are not allowed to notify parents or other school staff members that a report has been made. That responsibility lies with child-protective services or law enforcement.
Many districts queried by The Republic said they review their hazing policies with their coaches each year and conduct some form of training to help them be better prepared to identify instances of potential hazing.
Districts also said they show students instructional videos aimed at building anti-hazing awareness, as well as requiring their student-athletes to sign statements acknowledging hazing is not tolerated.
Schools are also required to publish their hazing policies in the school handbooks distributed to students and parents.
Most schools have the reporting form included in their policies for students and school officials.
Schools include in their policies that students who engage in hazing are subject to disciplinary actions, but those actions are left largely at the schools’ discretion.
Increased public concern
Steve McDowell, director of athletics at Gilbert Public Schools, said after increased public concern about hazing, district regulations and policies were reviewed, but no changes were suggested by district officials. Athletic directors at each school, McDowell said, were instructed to separately review the policies in their regular meetings with all physical-education teachers and coaches.
In Mesa Public Schools, students are required to view a video on consent and are required to sign a “Statement of Awareness” document, said Heidi Hurst, a Mesa district spokeswoman.
“We have strong procedures already in place regarding hazing, and the district continues to ensure those procedures are followed,” Hurst said.
Peoria Unified School District spokeswoman Danielle Airey stressed that Peoria schools have a long-standing focus on training for coaches to ensure the district’s “zero tolerance” for hazing.
“We have absolutely reinforced that this year,” she said.
Deer Valley Unified School District spokeswoman Monica Allread said after school officials were notified by the victim’s guardian about the attack by fellow wrestlers, the administration contacted every parent who had a wrestler in the program.
“They made parents aware that there was a serious incident not involving their son and that they have taken the appropriate action and disciplinary consequences,” she said.
Corrective actions, Allread said, also have been taken, including more character education for student-athletes,additional room assignments when traveling for athletics or other activities, and increased education for student-athletes on all of the systems for reporting any actions that compromise the safety of themselves or others.
What police say happened at Hamilton
The criminal charges at Hamilton first rocked the school and Arizona football community in late March.
Police allege that multiple physical and sexual assaults were committed in the football locker room between fall 2015 and January 2017 by multiple members of the football team on freshman players who were new to the varsity team.
Police said assaults occurred at varying levels of criminal offense and included penetration. Victims said they were referred to as “fresh meat” who had to be hazed.
The team didn’t determine initiation “successful” unless there was a form of penetration, police said. Attackers allegedly would manipulate victims’ genitals, push their own genitals into the faces of the victims and slap their buttocks.
Victims also were beaten and physically restrained, police said.
Initially, police had identified four victims. But as families of victims filed notices of claim against the Chandler district, another victim stepped forward.
A sixth victim in August reported more alleged sexual attacks, prompting Chandler police to recommend additional charges against James and Belles.
A total of four charges of child abuse are being sought by police against the two men.
The district now faces a potential $34 million in damages over allegations that coaches took steps to cover up hazing on campus.
Three teenagers also face charges in the case.
One player, Nathaniel William Thomas, 17, was charged as an adult with sexual assault and multiple counts of molestation, kidnapping and aggravated assault involving alleged attacks on three victims. His next court hearing is scheduled for Oct. 11.
Two 16-year-old players face charges as juveniles of kidnapping, aggravated assault and assault.
What Mountain Ridge victim alleged
Two members of the Glendale Mountain Ridge High School wrestling team are accused of sexually assaulting another member of the team during a December 2016 tournament in Holbrook.
On the Valley’s west side, more shocking allegations came out: A Mountain Ridge wrestler said he was molested by teammates with whom he had shared a hotel room during an out-of-town wresting invitational in northern Arizona in December 2016.
Four boys were wrestling on the beds, according to a Glendale police report. One of the boys told the victim to stop and when the victim didn’t stop, the boy told him he was “being annoying.” The victim continued to wrestle until the boy threatened him with sexual assault. The victim was then put in a hold, with his arms pinned behind him and his face pressed onto the bed.
He said he was lying face down when a second boy assaulted him while another boy recorded the assault on his cellphone. Then he was placed in a chokehold, the victim said.
Allread told The Republic that the two teens were disciplined by school officials and no longer attend Mountain Ridge. The students also were indicted in May, according to Navajo County Superior Court.
The court clerk confirmed that charges were filed in the case but said the indictment was sealed. The court representative would not confirm the specific charges that the teens, both of whom are juveniles, face.
What can parents learn?
The incidents raised awareness for parents as well.
According to Dr. Beth Bradley, parents need to determine if the team is a good program for their child, not only for the athletic skills being taught but for the character traits being taught as well. Parents, Bradley said, should get a read on whether the team has a safe, healthy culture that teaches leadership, respect and honor.
Bradley is a consultant and trainer for school districts throughout Arizona, New York and Massachusetts, and is focused on creating cultures of accountability and respect and how to respond after complaints of employee misconduct, boundary-crossing behavior, sexual harassment and hazing.
She recommends parents ask their children’s coaches questions, such as:
- Are there any rituals the new team members are expected or encouraged to take part in?
- What do you do to build team cohesiveness?
- How can a student or parent report disrespectful behavior?
- How are they encouraged to report?
Coaches and other school staff members need to take every rumor or allegation seriously, Bradley said, following up on any information they receive of possible harassment or abuse.
“When there’s smoke, there’s often fire,” Bradley said.
Bradley said she advises school districts that she consults not to wait for a complaint or an incident to arise to take action. District and school staff members need to recognize that no team or group on a high-school campus is immune to hazing or bullying, she said.
Any conversations need to occur before incidents can happen and coaches need to establish communication of policies and their stance on the issue, beyond just a sentence or two in a parent meeting, Bradley said.
A disconnect on hazing?
Although studies show about 50 percent of high-school and college athletes experience hazing, Bradley said only 8 percent of students call it hazing.
The number indicates a disconnect on how students believe they are treated or behave toward others. Parents should take the “shocking” statistics as a message to talk to their children about what hazing is, Bradley said.
Questions that Bradley recommends parents and coaches ask students regularly are:
- Have you been asked to do anything that is humiliating, embarrassing, or scary?
- Has anyone treated you disrespectfully?
- Have you been asked or forced to do anything that you wouldn’t do in front of me?
“Every team has its own culture,” Bradley said. “The coaching staff and the team leaders shape that culture.”
Coaches need to hit hard that hazing is not acceptable in any form, she said, and draw a line that being on a team is earned. They need to make it clear that if they learn that anyone is being hurt by another teammate, that teammate will not only sit out from a game but will be off the team, she said.
“Coaches have a lot of power, and sometimes they underestimate it,” Bradley said.
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