Report offers details in bus incident

An investigator reports that she found evidence of four violations of the Shenandoah County Public School’s harassment and retaliation policy, including evidence of unwelcomed sexual conduct, on a school bus carrying coaches and varsity and junior varsity members of the Strasburg High School basketball teams following a game on Dec. 19 in Moorefield, West Virginia.

E. Kate Fitzgerald, an attorney from Leesburg retained by the school division to conduct a Title IX  investigation, outlined what occurred in each of the incidents in her memorandum of findings following more than 50 interviews with students and coaches who were on the bus as well as reviews of video of the incidents. The report was provided to the Northern Virginia Daily by the school division on Thursday.

Superintendent Jeremy Raley reacted to the report last week by condemning the students’ actions and criticizing staff members, stating in an email to the Daily that, “As superintendent, I am appalled by what I have learned, and I am unwilling to diminish or excuse the student misconduct or the staff misjudgments.”

Fitzgerald notes in her report that several students were involved and that there were four victims.

“I find in the totality of the factual circumstances that there is sufficient evidence to prove that there were violations of the SCPS Prohibition against Harassment and Retaliation policy committed by Students 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 against Student 9; by Students 1, 2 and 8 against Student 15; by Students 10, 11 and 12 against Student 14; and by Students 16 and 17 against Student 18.”

She stated in a conclusion to the report, “There was no evidence presented that any of the four victims requested or invited the acts of the offending students. There was no route of escape available to any of the victims. In three of the incidents, the victims’ mouths were covered, ostensibly to muffle any cries for help; in one case, there is evidence that that victim may have had trouble breathing as a result. The conduct was both undesirable and offensive.”

As for the coaches who were sitting in the front of the bus, she states, “In reviewing interview notes, there were some notable discrepancies in the initial statements made by Adults 2, 3, and 4 on January 12, 2016, and their subsequent statements during the interviews on January 19, 2016. For example, on January 12, 2016, all three stated that they had heard the term ‘lynching’ used before the December incident, but a week later all three denied hearing it before then.”

Lynching, in these incidents, holds no racial connotations. According to the report, “Every student defined lynching as the practice of inserting fingers and/or other objects into the anus of another person, and characterized it as a form of horseplay.”

According to the report, “The sentiments expressed by some of the adults was that this was a case of ‘boys being boys,’ or that it was how ‘teams and players bonded,’ and was nothing more than ‘horseplay,’ ‘dog-piling,’ ‘roughhousing’ or ‘hazing’ that might have gotten a little out of hand-typical locker room stuff, like towel-snapping.”

The report also states, “There is also no dispute that, on or about December 22, 2015, the coaches called the teams together prior to leaving for an away game. While there is no exact account of the language and details of that meeting, it is generally agreed that the essence of the coaches’ remarks was that, whatever behavior was going on, must stop. All students interviewed agreed that the subsequent bus trips were significantly less raucous than their descriptions of the trip on December 19, 2015.”

The investigation into the allegations began after Strasburg High School Principal Morgan Saeler received a report on Jan. 11 that a student was “lynched” on the bus.

After receiving these allegations, Raley suspended all junior varsity and varsity basketball practices and games.

Since then, seven students have been charged with assault or battery by mob and have appeared before a judge in Shenandoah County Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.  The outcomes of those appearances have not been made public. The report mentions that several students were suspended from school.

The report goes into great detail about each incident, describing what was seen in the video and what was reported by witnesses and the victims. Alleged misconduct includes holding the victims down, punching a victim in the genitals, hitting a victim in the side, putting a victim in a headlock, and inappropriate touching.

The report also notes that “lynching” incidents occurred before the December trip and involved Strasburg High School’s baseball and football teams.  Some of the lynching incidents have reportedly occurred in the school’s locker room.

“Many of the younger students interviewed expressed concerns about being in the locker room before and after practices and games, and reported trying to avoid taking showers because of the prevalence of lynching and similar practices in which a student was beset by a number of other students and touched inappropriately,” Fitzgerald stated in the report.

Contact staff writer Kaley Toy at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or ktoy@nvdaily.com

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