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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Arraignment of Nathaniel Thomas, a Hamilton High School football player accused of assault, on Thursday, April 13, 2017.
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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 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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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 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
Sexual-assault allegations involving the Hamilton High School football program were back in the news as the 2017-18 school year and football practices began in Chandler.
Here is a rundown of what we know so far.
What are the allegations?
Chandler police and the Chandler Unified School District said they were alerted by a third party in February to the allegations of assault.
In a document filed July 26, police allege multiple physical and sexual assaults were committed in the football locker room between the fall 2016 and January 2017 by multiple members of the football team on freshmen players who were new to the varsity team.
“The assaults were a tradition to some members of the team, occurring over at least two seasons as an ‘initiation or hazing’ of the new members,” police said in the document.
These assaults occurred at varying levels of criminal offense and included penetration by fingers and/or objects, police said. Some assaults were recorded and posted to social media.
Who has been charged?
Three teenagers already 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.
According to materials provided by the Maricopa County Superior Court, prosecutors said Thomas used his finger to molest one teammate and attempted to do so to two others. The teen, a junior last school year, vehemently denied the allegations, his attorney, Ken Countryman, said at Thomas’ initial court appearance.
What additional charges are being sought?
Chandler police have recommended to the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office that criminal charges be brought against Hamilton Principal Ken James, former Hamilton football head coach Steve Belles and school Athletic Director Shawn Rustad.
Police investigators allege James, Belles and Rustad failed to report violent hazing incidents involving team members to law enforcement.
James and Belles could face charges of non-compliance with a “duty to report” law and child abuse, Chandler police said. Police allege Rustad violated the “duty to report” law.
The Chandler Unified School District’s guideline for reporting states that when a district employee has reasonable belief that a child may be a victim of abuse, the employee must “immediately, within reason,” contact appropriate child-welfare or law-enforcement agencies.
The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office will determine whether charges will be filed against James, Belles and Rustad. The charging recommendations for James and Belles were sent by police to the county attorney on July 21. A similar recommendation for Rustad was sent July 26.
Is the investigation complete?
Chandler police said the investigation was ongoing. Anyone who was subjected to hazing activities at the school was encouraged to notify the police department.
Has the school district taken any action?
Chandler Unified School District spokesman Terry Locke said James, Belles and Rustad will remain in their jobs pending the county attorney’s charging decision.
The three remain on campus under the “presumption of innocence,” Locke said.
“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.”
James continues his role as principal while Belles, who has been removed from coaching duties, is an instructor at Hamilton. Rustad, who has been athletic director at the school since 2016, also remains in the same capacity.
Asked if the district is considering any disciplinary action that is not contingent on the county attorney’s charging decision, Locke declined to “speculate on any action.”
What other legal action could occur?
Families of three students who allegedly were sexually assaulted by Hamilton football players are seeking a total of $20 million in damages, alleging coaches took steps to cover up the hazing.
The notices of claim against the Chandler Unified School District contend the district was negligent in supervising and hiring the school’s football coaches, who “did nothing to prevent these attacks.”
Two families are asking to settle their claims against the district for $7 million each. The other family is seeking $6 million. The claims were submitted May 24.
James, Belles and Rustad are named in the notices of claim, along with assistant coaches who have not been publicly named by authorities. The notices allege they had knowledge of assaults and then camouflaged the incidents when concerns were raised.
What’s new in the football program?
Fall practice has begun. Dick Baniszewski, a Hamilton assistant principal in charge of sophomores and formerly the junior varsity coach, is serving as the head coach this season.
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